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

Historical Facts | March 7, 2021

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.  

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.

U.S. propaganda poster targeted at World War II servicemen appealed to their patriotism in urging them to protect themselves. (National Institute of Health/Wikimedia Commons)

Doughboy Prophylactics

Although the Comstock laws weren't formally repealed until 1965, the federal court decided in the '30s that the condom's ability to prevent diseases made it a valid healthcare tool despite conservative concerns regarding its use as birth control. This growing acceptance was in part due to the difficulty the military had during World War I in controlling the ongoing outbreaks of venereal disease, as it turned out promoting abstinence and encouraging good hygiene did very little to keep the soldiers safe from sexually transmitted diseases. Instead of issuing condoms, the soldiers were given "Doughboy Prophylactic kits," which included antiseptics and ointments that did basically nothing to stop the spread of V.D. The medical costs of treating V.D. during wartime topped some $50 million (or $860 million today) and cost the war effort precious time, as so many soldiers had to spend days in the infirmary to fight off their ailments.

In 1937, the F.D.A. finally accepted condoms as a medical device to be made available at pharmacies and began regulating them to promote a higher-quality and more reliable product. Having learned from their mistakes during the Great War, the U.S. military put a lot of effort into making condoms available to their soldiers during World War II, promoting their use both at home and overseas. After the war, the stigma of condom use had largely faded and it became a common method of disease prevention and birth control throughout the '50s. The flower power generation, who promoted ideals like free love in the '60s, further exemplified the need for condoms when it came to sexually transmitted diseases, but nothing proved to the American public the necessity of protected sex like the A.I.D.S. epidemic of the 1980s.  

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1, colored green, budding from a cultured lymphocyte. (C. Goldsmith/Wikimedia Commons)

Condoms Today

The A.I.D.S. epidemic hit the United States in the early '80s, but it took several years to identify the disease and how it was spread from person to person. By 1984, it was understood that the virus that causes A.I.D.S. was spread primarily through sexual contact, and considering it had a nearly 100% death rate, the promotion of condoms suddenly became mainstream.

Despite the best efforts of print and public advertising to get the word out, however, television networks still refused to run ads or even public service announcements due to "decency" concerns. Eventually, public health won out and the first condom commercial premiered in 1991 with a 15-second spot promoting the wildly popular Trojan brand, although it was not allowed to mention contraception. Today, over 450 million condoms are sold each year in the United States, so it appears the "rubber safe" is here to stay.

Tags: diseases | historical facts | sex

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