The History of Birth Control: From Alligator Dung to The Pill

The his­to­ry of birth con­trol is almost as old as the his­to­ry of the wheel.

Pes­saries dat­ing to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt pro­vide the launch­ing pad for doc­u­men­tar­i­an Lind­say Hol­i­day’s overview of birth con­trol through­out the ages and around the world.

Holiday’s His­to­ry Tea Time series fre­quent­ly delves into women’s his­to­ry, and her pledge to donate a por­tion of the above video’s ad rev­enue to Pathfind­er Inter­na­tional serves as reminder that there are parts of the world where women still lack access to afford­able, effec­tive, and safe means of con­tra­cep­tion.

One goal of the World Health Organization’s End­ing Pre­ventable Mater­nal Mor­tal­i­ty ini­tia­tive is for 65% of women to be able to make informed and empow­ered deci­sions regard­ing sex­u­al rela­tions, con­tra­cep­tive use, and their repro­duc­tive health by 2025.

As Hol­i­day points out, expense, social stig­ma, and reli­gious edicts have impact­ed ease of access to birth con­trol for cen­turies.

The fur­ther back you go, you can be cer­tain that some meth­ods advo­cat­ed by mid­wives and med­i­cine women have been lost to his­to­ry, owing to unrecord­ed oral tra­di­tion and the sen­si­tive nature of the infor­ma­tion.

Hol­i­day still man­ages to truf­fle up a fas­ci­nat­ing array of prac­tices and prod­ucts that were thought — often erro­neous­ly — to ward off unwant­ed preg­nan­cy.

Some that worked and con­tin­ue to work to vary­ing degrees, include bar­ri­er meth­ods, con­doms, and more recent­ly the IUD and The Pill.

Def­i­nite­ly NOT rec­om­mend­ed: with­draw­al, hold­ing your breath dur­ing inter­course, a post-coital sneez­ing reg­i­men, douch­ing with Lysol or Coca-Cola, tox­ic cock­tails of lead, mer­cury or cop­per salt, any­thing involv­ing alli­ga­tor dung, and slug­ging back water that’s been used to wash a corpse.

As for sil­phi­um, an herb that like­ly did have some sort of sper­mi­ci­dal prop­er­ties, we’ll nev­er know for sure. By 1 CE, demand out­stripped sup­ply of this rem­e­dy, even­tu­al­ly wip­ing it off the face of the earth despite increas­ing­ly astro­nom­i­cal prices. Fun fact: sil­phi­um was also used to treat sore throat, snakebite, scor­pi­on stings, mange, gout, quin­sy, epilep­sy, and anal warts

The his­to­ry of birth con­trol can be con­sid­ered a semi-secret part of the his­to­ry of pros­ti­tu­tion, fem­i­nism, the mil­i­tary, obscen­i­ty laws, sex edu­ca­tion and atti­tudes toward pub­lic health.

From Mar­garet Sanger and the 60,000 women exe­cut­ed as witch­es in the 16th and 17th cen­turies, to econ­o­mist Thomas Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Prin­ci­ple of Pop­u­la­tion and leg­endary adven­tur­er Gia­co­mo Casano­va’s satin rib­bon-trimmed jim­my hat, this episode of His­to­ry Tea Time with Lind­say Hol­i­day touch­es on it all.

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Birth Con­trol Hand­book: The Under­ground Stu­dent Pub­li­ca­tion That Let Women Take Con­trol of Their Bod­ies (1968)

I’m Just a Pill: A School­house Rock Clas­sic Gets Reimag­ined to Defend Repro­duc­tive Rights in 2017

The Sto­ry Of Men­stru­a­tion: Watch Walt Disney’s Sex Ed Film from 1946

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