Sexual Health: The History of Birth Control

People used unusual types of birth control before modern methods were invented.

Anything to Avoid Abstinence!

Our ancestors would try just about anything to prevent pregnancy, from animal poop and poisonous potions, to citrus fruits and wooden blocks. Before modern medicine gave us go-tos like the pill and patch, couples resorted to more unusual birth control methods.

Iron chastity belts were popular in the 1800s in England and France.

The Best Offense Is a Good Defense

Iron chastity belts under lock and key are often connected with Medieval torture devices, but the truth is that they didn't become popular until the 1800s. Fashion magazines advertised them as a defense against rape. During the Industrial Revolution, women in England and France were entering the workforce in record numbers, and some bought the uncomfortable underpants to ward off sexual assaults. Men sometimes wanted their mates to wear them to prevent cheating and masturbation.

Some women in China used to drink mercury, mistakenly thinking it would act as a contraceptive.

Mercury Rising

Wearing metal can be aggravating, but drinking it is downright dangerous. Thousands of years ago, some Chinese women drank liquid lead and mercury as a contraceptive. It had terrible side effects like sterility, kidney failure, brain damage, and could lead to death.

Women exposed themselves to lead and hot water tainted by metals thinking it would act as a contraceptive.

In Hot Water

Soranus, a 2nd century Greek gynecologist really missed the mark. He told women to jump backward seven times after sex and drink the water blacksmiths used to cool their metal. Did he not learn anything about metal poisoning from ancient China? Then again, even as recently as World War I, some women volunteered to work with lead in factories in hopes of becoming sterile.

People used to use natural substances as condoms.

Wrap It Up

The first mention of a condom dates back to 3000 B.C. when King Minos of Crete (from Homer's Illiad) used the bladder of a goat to protect his wife from the "serpents and scorpions" in his semen. Yikes. Through the ages, people also used linen, sheep intestines, and fish bladders.

In 1985, Harvard researchers reported that Diet Coke killed sperm in test tubes.

'Open Happiness'

Long before the latest "Share a Coke" ad campaign, some women would pop open a can for a different kind of refreshment. And in 1985, Harvard researchers reported that the soda killed some sperm in test tubes. The New Coke formula turned out to be a dud, funny enough, while Diet Coke was the most effective. But before you go stocking up on six-packs to use as a spermicidal douche, note that later studies couldn't prove the findings.

Lysol soap was the best-selling contraceptive of The Great Depression, but it harmed many women.

Squeaky Clean

Lysol sanitizes door handles and countertops, but we draw the line at vaginas. The household disinfectant once advertised itself as a douche to prevent infection and odor. To get around the 1873 Comstock Act, which banned "articles of immoral use," birth control was disguised and sold as feminine hygiene products. The ad campaign reportedly made Lysol soap the best-selling contraceptive of The Great Depression. But not surprisingly, it caused inflammation and burning. Some women even died from it.

In the Middle Ages, people thought magic and amulets could ward off pregnancy.

Work Its Magic

When all else fails, why not put a little faith in magic spells and potions? We're joking, but in the Middle Ages, some people wore amulets made of mule's earwax, weasel's testicles, and a bone taken from the right side of a black cat. Couldn't hurt, right?

Women in different cultures used to make crude sperm barriers out of bizarre materials.

You Shall Not Pass!

Long before the diaphragm, some women made crude sperm barriers with bizarre materials:

  • Ancient Indians and Egyptians used the poop of "mystical" animals like crocodiles and elephants. And thanks to its high acidity, it may have actually worked.
  • Africans made plugs out of chopped grass or cloth.
  • Japanese prostitutes used bamboo tissue.
  • Islamic and Greek women wadded up wool.
  • Slavs used linen rags.
  • Jewish women wrapped a sea sponge in silk and attached a string to it. It's fairly effective and still used today!
Casanova asked his lovers to use lemon halves as a contraceptive.

Lemony Fresh

The legendary Casanova reportedly asked his lovers to use lemon halves, because high levels of acidity can kill semen. The idea that ladies would even consider this option is a testament to his charms.

An ancient prescription for birth control calls for a tampon made of seed wool soaked in ground thorn tree, dates, and honey.

Motherhood vs. Mother Nature

One of the first prescriptions for birth control was on a papyrus sheet from 1550 B.C. Egypt. It calls for a tampon made of seed wool soaked in ground thorn tree, dates, and honey.

Women used to use wooden blocks as contraceptives.

Just Imagine the Splinters!

Still not shocked? Then imagine a wooden block up there. Women breathed a widespread sigh of relief when it was banned and declared an "instrument of torture" in the 1930s.



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  • Semmelweis Library and Archives of the History of Medicine: "The Secret Histories of Chastity Belts Myth and Reality."
  • Khan, F. et al. Indian Journal of Urology, January- March 2013.
  • Smithsonian Magazine: "Lysol's Vintage Ads Subtly Pushed Women to Use Its Disinfectant as Birth Control."
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: "Comstock Act."
  • Our Bodies Ourselves: "A Brief History of Birth Control in the US."
  • Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "Toronto Museum Explores History of Contraceptives."
  • London, K. "A History of Birth Control," Yale University.
  • PBS: "People and Events: Birth Control Before The Pill."
  • The History of Contraception Museum.
  • Staying Alive Foundation: "The 7 Wackiest Contraceptives…Ever."
  • Preggo: "Birth Control Needs, Methods, and Information."
  • Hong, CY et al. Hum Toxicol, "The Spermicidal Potency of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola," September 1987.
  • PBS: "Birth Control Before the Pill."
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