Birth control, way back when: the 1920s-30s
Modern life isn’t perfect, but there are definitely some perks—like a whole lot of options when it comes to birth control. So which methods were U.S. couples using in the days of yore, while dialing land-lines and watching Bewitched? Let’s get in the WABAC machine and find out!
Even after Margaret Sanger’s rabble-rousing, things didn’t improve much on the birth control front in the Roaring ’20s. After a huge number of American soldiers returned from World War I with venereal disease (STIs or STDs in modern lingo), condoms became more common but were still only available to men with a doctor’s prescription. And here’s the kicker: they were only prescribed to prevent STIs, never to control fertility. (A married couple couldn’t get a prescription for condoms!) And while in theory a woman could get a prescription of birth control for “therapeutic use,” in practice it was difficult to find a sympathetic doctor to grant such a request.
Without access to reliable birth control options, women were essentially left with abstinence as their only effective option. Though abortions were illegal in the ’20s (along with booze), that didn’t stop desperate women from seeking them out in droves. 5,000 women a year died of complications from an illegal abortion. The ’30s and the Great Depression didn’t offer much more hope: women tried to use "feminine hygiene" products like douches, jellies, and suppositories as alternatives to abstinence.
Though the future must have looked bleak, activists like Margaret Sanger continued working to change the prevailing attitudes toward birth control throughout the ’20s and ’30s. At the same time, scientists were making great strides in understanding fertility, with researchers in this period calculating the first accurate fertility cycles and identifying the hormones progesterone and estrogen. Behind the struggles of the ’20s and ’30s, the necessary first steps toward widespread, effective, and legal hormonal and barrier birth control were being taken.
“Birth Control Review 1919” by SasiSasi.
From “E-condoms: The next big thing in safe sex is digital,” via Salon, February 26, 2014.
Hmmm… Would try it?
“Will you be medaling in the morning?" ESPN, April 15, 2013.
We know the 2014 Winter Olympics hasn’t been all rainbows (nice doodle, Google!) and dancing bears, but there’s one thing we’re thrilled to know went off without a hitch—condoms for the athletes! We learned during the Summer Olympics that Olympians have such a blast that now 100,000 condoms are ordered to distribute to athletes for the duration of every Olympics. Glad to know the Olympians in Sochi will be able to keep things hot and safe during the Games.
I’m just going to address this quickly because I still get funny looks/questions/laughed at when I talk about wearing condoms, using condoms or buying condoms. Indeed, my spouse and I both have vaginas, but we use condoms regularly. The problem (and my frustration) is:
A. Not everyone uses condoms right now, especially people who don’t have penises
B. Some people without penises really need to use condoms
For some education on why you should use condoms, even if you don’t have a penis or don’t use a penis in sex:
The rate of HPV that’s spreading and how easily it’s spread is scary, and can lead to full-blown cancer. Someone in my family had pre-cancerous cells found in them and they still have to get regular check-ups to be screened for cancer in their cervix. There are also a ton of other STI’s that can be had from fluid contact (vagina to vagina included, or even from fingers, tongues, etc.) and shared toy use.
Also, a lot of common toys, especially dildos, are made from materials that can’t be sanitized effectively, so not only does that increase a risk of passing along STIs, but it also can lead to bacterial infections from the toys never being able to be truly cleaned, or other nasty reactions from non-medical-grade PVC or other materials that your body doesn’t like.
So, people who have vaginas or use toys: USE CONDOMS AND USE THEM EFFECTIVELY, as this comic demonstrates. Use them as dental dams, use them on your fingers, use them on your toys, use them for switching between vaginal and anal play, etc. etc. You can very literally save your, or someone else’s life, and I feel like the only time condoms are brought up is when there’s a penis involved. There’s no excuse not to be safe, and that includes not having a penis.
Yet another reason why condoms are awesome and important!
Extreme cases, although more complex, include women that have been detained at customs or arrested on suspicion of prostitution for simply carrying condoms. Yes, that’s in the U.S. While several laws have only recently been passed to prevent such groundless arrests in the first place, the mainstream social and cultural stigma of a woman carrying condoms is thriving, very real, and it’s total bullshit. The answer is not to tell women to not carry condoms, it’s to encourage more women to carry condoms.
Birth control, way back when: the 1980s
Modern life isn’t perfect, but there are definitely some perks—like a whole lot more options when it comes to birth control. But what methods were couples using in the days of yore, while dialing land lines and watching Bewitched? Let’s get in the WABAC machine and find out!
In the 1980s, growing public awareness about the HIV/AIDS epidemic made condoms more popular than ever as people increasingly looked to prevent sexually transmitted infections in addition to pregnancy. Condoms became more widely available (in vending machines and schools, for example), and were heavily advertised as tools for safe sex.
As more research was done on the health effects of hormones, lower-dose birth control pills continued to gain ground. Non-hormonal barrier methods like the sponge (which debuted in 1983) and the diaphragm, which had been extremely popular before the advent of the pill, came into the limelight after the Dalkon Shield made many women wary of IUDs.
The silver lining? The decade’s health scares pushed the conversation around sexual health out into the open, allowing more folks to easily access information about safe sex and birth control.
“Don’t listen to rumors about AIDS, get the facts!” image by Public Health Service, HHS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Condoms dominate the restaurant’s decor — mannequins wear outfits made from them, the lampshades are covered in them, and diners receive them at the end of their meal in lieu of mints.
From “Cabbages and Condoms: The Restaurant That Serves Green Curry and Birth Control,” Slate, December 13, 2013.
Okay, who’s opening one in the U.S.?
Birth control, way back when
"Peabody’s Wayback Machine" image by Twechie.
Modern life isn’t perfect, but there are definitely some perks. Where previous generations had to carry paper maps around while traveling and make do with Eggos, we’ve got smart phones and gluten-free waffles. There are also a lot more options when it comes to birth control.
So what birth control methods were they using in the U.S. while dialing land-lines and watching Bewitched? Let’s get in the WABAC machine and find out! In our new series, “Birth Control, Way Back When,” we’ll be exploring birth control methods from the days of yore, when dropping by Walgreens for Plan B on your way to brunch was as far in the future as a self-driving car.We’ve scoured sources both popular and scholarly to bring you the highlights of birth control from a variety of decades. If you can’t wait for the first post, some of our favorite resources on the topic are Linda Gordon’s The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, Elain Tyler May’s America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation, and Planned Parenthood’s 3 minute video history of oral contraceptives.
Got a story about birth control methods past or a juicy bit of birth control trivia? Drop us a line in the comments; we’d love to hear from you!
Method Monday: Birth Control for TV Characters—Round Two!
In Round Two of this Method Monday special (you can read the original here), join us in speculating about how the cast of Grey’s Anatomy gets down, whether New Girl’s Jess tells Nick to wrap it up, and just how pregnant the vampires of Bon Temps, Louisiana, can get.
Character 1: Jessica Day, New Girl
Here’s why: It’s Jess! She’s wacky, she’s spontaneous, and she’s so socially awkward that she’s never sure when she’s going to end up scoring. She needs a method that’s reliable and portable, and with her unstable employment (read: no health insurance), she probably wants one that doesn’t require repeat visits to a health care provider.
The copper IUD is the perfect method for Jess: low-cost, effective, and environment-friendly. And with the IUD, Jess can go where the moment takes her. Even when it’s an extremely awkward moment.
Jess is also responsible (and awkward) enough to carry around a box of 100 condoms with her on Valentine’s Day—just in case.
Character 2: Tara Thornton, True Blood
Her method: Male condom + Being a vampire (we don’t have that one in our method explorer)
Here’s why: Tara started out True Blood as a typical Southern girl—tough but sweet, with a big crush on her best friend’s brother. Then the show put her through the wringer: she got brainwashed, her boyfriend was murdered, she was kidnapped and tortured by a vampire, and she was ultimately turned into a vampire herself. Tara 2.0: not so nice.
Early Tara seems like a condom kind of girl—male condoms are easy to find, effective, and essential for STI protection (helpful when a girl’s trying to make it with Jason Stackhouse). Turning into a vampire eliminated Tara’s need for birth control: Vamps can’t get pregnant and seem immune to human diseases. Silver lining? (Ohhh, vampire pun!)
Character 3: Lady Mary Crawley, Downton Abbey
Her method: Not right now (dear)
It’s the early twentieth century on Downton, and despite being sexually adventurous, Mary’s options for birth control are pretty limited. While early versions of condoms exist, most birth control is extremely primitive. (Lysol douching, anyone?) Good thing Mary really wanted a bun in the oven after marrying her cousin-love Matthew!
If she hadn’t wanted a pregnancy, Mary would probably have had to rely on some version of “I have a headache” for birth control. It’s usually a temporary method, but hey—when it works, it’s 100% effective.
Characters 4-57: The Cast of Grey’s Anatomy
Here’s why: Oh, you thought Grey’s Anatomy was about medicine? Actually, a much bigger focus in Grey’s storylines is who’s sleeping with whom. Or who isn’t sleeping with anybody at all.
Remember the time the whole hospital got syphilis? All kinds of birth control methods have shown up on Grey’s, from abstinence to sterilization, but the one we really hope that everyone at Seattle Grace is using effectively? Condoms. Any kind of condoms.
Who else should we be speculating about? Got theories of your own? Let us know in the comments.