The History of Birth Control, Part One: 30,000 BCE to 1899

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For perhaps 30,000 years, humankind has sought methods to enjoy sex without incurring unwanted pregnancy. From masturbation to condoms to drugs, the search goes on, with untold approaches to meeting this need on the techno-horizon.

30,000 BCE: Crafting of the world’s oldest known dildo, a 20 cm siltstone phallus made by unknown people of Ulm, Germany, suggests that not all sexual needs were remedied by intercourse even in pre-historic times--either to prevent pregnancy, or simply for sexual variation.

1850 BCE: Birth control and infanticide are well documented in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt during this period.  One of the earliest documents explicitly referring to birth control is the Kuhn gynecological papyrus which describes various vaginal suppositories using acacia gum. 

Other birth control methods mentioned in the papyrus include the application of various gummy substances over the “mouth of the womb,” a mixture of honey and sodium carbonate applied inside the vagina, and a highly touted suppository made from crocodile dung.  Breast feeding of up to three years was also used for birth control in ancient Egypt during this time.

800 BCE: Chinese physician Master Tung-hsuan documented both coitus reservatus and coitus obstructus during intercourse

In the same century, Sun Su-mo documented the “thousand of gold contraceptive prescription,” an oil and mercury remedy taken orally to induced sterility in women who no longer wanted to bear children.

700 BCE: Religious texts  of the Near East that would become the Book of Genesis suggest withdrawal, or coitus interruptus, as a method of contraception when Onan spills his semen on the ground so as not to father a child with his deceased brother’s wife Tamar. 

Similarly, the Talmud states that “there are three women that must cohabit with a sponge: a minor, a pregnant woman, and one that nurses her child”; a sponge is now known to have been an absorbent material such as cotton or wool.

600 BCE: Documented by numerous ancient writers around the world including Hippocrates, plants with contraceptive properties were used in ancient Greece from the seventh century BCE onwards. The botanist Theophrastus documented the use of silphium (rosin weed) a plant well known for its contraceptive and abortive properties.

200 BCE: The high demand of silphium in Greece in previous centuries eventually led to its extinction by the third or second century BCE, with asafetida becoming the internal choice of contraceptive.  Other plants commonly used for birth control included Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), willow, date palm, pomegranate, pennyroyal, artemisia, myrrh, and rue, some used orally, some internally.  (Queen Anne’s lace is still used today for birth control in India and among New Agers of the US.)

1 CE: The documented use of the term coitus interruptus in documents of Rome and Greece made this withdrawal or “pull-out method” widely known and assumedly, widely practiced.

100: Although anal sex, oral sex, and abstinence are believed to have been common methods of contraception since humankind first became aware of how pregnancy occurred, these acts first appeared in common documents of this era, thus indicating their accepted use.

130: Greek physician Soranus published a commonly-referenced medical book titled, Gynecology, in which he endorsed a method of birth control in which the woman holds her breath and then squats down and sneezes after the man ejaculates inside her.  As this was actually not a viable method of birth control, a baby boom occurred during this period of Greek history. (*See 1866)

890: In the late ninth to early tenth century, the Persian physician Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi documented coitus interruptus and the use of vaginal suppositories as common birth control methods.  He also described a number of suppositories made from elephant dung, cabbages, and pitch. 

During the same period, Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi documented the use of suppositories made of rock salt for women for whom pregnancy may be dangerous.

900: Abu Ali al-Hussain ibn Abdallah ibn Sina, known in Europe as Avicenna, included a chapter on birth control in his medical encyclopedia The Canon of Medicine, documenting 20 different methods of preventing conception.

1100: In the twelth century, Ratirahasya (“Secret of Love“) and the Anangaranga (“The Stage of the God of Love”), Hindus are instructed in how to use a variety of birth control methods including a potion made from powdered palm leaf and red chalk, as well as vaginal suppositories made of honey, ghee, rock salt, or the seeds of palasa tree.

1400: The first historic reference to the invention of the chastity belt appeared in Konrad Kyeser von Eichstatt’s Bellifortis, in which the chaste-preserving apparatus was described as “hard iron breeches of Florentine women which are locked at the front.”

1500: Documented use of condoms made of parchment, silk, lamb intestines, and even goat eyelids surface from ancient China.

1600: The term “dildo” made its way into the vernacular of Renaissance Italy, with penis-shaped–often exaggerated-in-size and including testicles–bedroom buddies made of wood or leather becoming popular features of boudoirs all across Europe.  Presumably, the popularity of the term promoted use of the sex devices, giving women an accepted choice for sexual release.

1750: The famous womanizer Giacomo Casanova, said to have bedded hundreds of women, reported in his diary using “assurance caps” (condoms) to prevent impregnating his mistresses.

1850: Initially intended to accommodate the miners of the area (and then later, soldiers passing through on leave), Nevada legalized brothels in particular counties of the state.  As professional prostitutes are known for utilizing a variety of contraceptive methods, this avenue of casual sex no doubt led to fewer unintended pregnancies.

1855: The first commercially-made condom came into existence in Europe in this year shortly after the first documented outbreak of syphilis.  They were made of linen and held on with ribbon.

1866: Borrowing a page from physician Soranus, post-Civil War physician Dr. Russell Thacker published, Sexual Physiology, in which he also prescribed sneezing as a method of birth control.  As before, it led to a boom of baby births. (See 130 CE)

1872: To facilitate social equality between men and women in the Soviet Union, birth control was made readily available. 

Alexandra Kollontai, commissar for public welfare during this time, also promoted birth control education for adults.

1880s: The soft latex or silicone cervical barrier known as the “diaphragm,” which creates a seal against the walls of the vagina to prevent conception, is introduced.

1899 (with experiments beginning in 1785): Vasectomy, the surgical procedure whereby the vasa deferentia of a man are severed and then tied/sealed in a manner which prevents sperm from entering the seminal stream, is first offered.


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