Doughboy Prophylactic: A Full History of Condoms And Prophylactics For Men

By | March 6, 2021

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A man poses holding a selection of unusual condoms are displayed at the Valentine's Condom pop-up shop in east London on February 9, 2016. (Getty Images)

Condoms may seem like a no-brainer when it comes to protected sex, but that hasn't always been the case. Despite the earliest birth control dating back to Ancient Egypt, it took a surprisingly long time for the condom to become the go-to method that it is today.

Ancient Condoms

There are several oblique references to condoms in the ancient days, most famously in the legend of Minos, a king of ancient Crete who was said to have tiny scorpions in his semen (yikes!) and thus had to wear some kind of animal tissue over himself so as to not release the creepy crawlies into his wife. Obviously, the validity of such claims is suspect, but it does prove that the ancients had at least a basic understanding of condoms, with things like goat bladders being sometimes referenced as a preferred material.

However, it was not until the Middle Ages that condom use became widespread. During the 1400s, France suffered a major syphilis epidemic, specifically among its military, and it spread like wildfire across Europe. Although syphilis is known for its rash, it can also lead to major complications like nerve and brain damage, sometimes resulting in death. An Italian priest and man of science, Gabriele Falloppio (most famous for his study of the fallopian tube), thought he could come up with a solution to the outbreak and so began to suggest that men sheath themselves in thin linen to protect themselves and their partners from the rash.  

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Casanova tests his condom for holes by inflating it. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Condom Controversy

However, what really caught on was the use of animal tissue, most commonly intestines, as a means of not only disease prevention but also birth control. While it may sound gross, these kind of condoms were surprisingly effective, and so-called "lambskin" condoms (which aren't really made of skin) are still in use today.

As time went on, condoms became ubiquitous. Even the legendary lover Casanova memorably described in his memoirs blowing into his condoms to make sure they didn't have any holes before putting them to good use. Luckily for the modern fellow, Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber in 1839, which turned out to be useful for more than tires. By 1920, latex condoms became available to the public and proved very popular, as they were cheaper than previous rubbers and more reliable than their animal-based predecessors.

As the condom began to be used primarily for birth control purposes, many religious communities spoke out against them. In 1861, the first advertisement for condoms in the United States graced the pages of the New York Times, but by 1873, the manufacture and sale of condoms was banned under the Comstock Laws, which cracked down on "moral obscenities."

Rates of sexually transmitted diseases sharply increased in the following years, but Americans weren't about to let a little thing like the law stop the good times (and good money) from rolling. One major manufacturer, Julius Schmidt, was even arrested for his work in 1890, but he and his competitors weren't deterred. They began to use euphemisms like "the rubber safe" to continue selling the sought-after commodity.