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The History of Condoms

The History of the Condom

The oldest illustration of a condom was found in Egypt and dates back more than 3,000 years. It is difficult to judge from the drawing what the ancient Egyptian wearing the condom had in mind. He may have worn it for sexual or ritual reasons-or both. Some claim that, in later times, the Romans made condoms from the muscle tissue of warriors they defeated in battle. The oldest condoms were discovered in the foundations of Dudley Castle near Birmingham, England. They were made of fish and animal intestine and dated back to 1640. They were probably used to prevent transmission of sexually transmitted infections during the war between the forces of Oliver Cromwell and soldiers loyal to King Charles I.

Historians disagree about how condoms got their name. Some say a "Dr. Condom" supplied King Charles II of England with animal-tissue sheaths to keep him from fathering illegitimate children and getting diseases from prostitutes. Others claim the word comes from a "Dr. Condon" or a "Colonel Cundum." It may be more likely that the word derives from the Latin condon, meaning "receptacle."

In the 18th century, the famous womanizer, Casanova, wore condoms made of linen. Rubber condoms were mass-produced after 1844, when Charles Goodyear patented the vulcanization of rubber, which he invented five years earlier. Condoms made of sheep's intestines are still available. They are now disposable and should only be used once. In the 1940s and 50s, they were washed, slathered in petroleum jelly, and kept in little wooden boxes in a bedroom drawer-but they weren't talked about-in front of the kids, anyway.

The American Social Hygiene Association fought hard to prohibit condom use in the early part of this century. Social hygienists believed that anyone who risked getting "venereal" diseases should suffer the consequences, including American "dough boys"-U.S. soldiers who fought in World War I. The American Expeditionary Forces, as our army was called, were the only armed forces in Europe during the war who were denied the use of condoms. It is not surprising that our troops had the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections of all; 70 percent of our "boys" were just unable to "just say 'no'." The Secretary of the Navy was only one of many military leaders who believed that condom use was immoral and "un Christian." It was a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, when his boss was away from the office, ordered the distribution of condoms to sailors.

One of the challenges that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, faced as she fought for women's right to use birth control was the double standard regarding condom use. Doctors were allowed to "prescribe" condoms to protect men from syphilis and gonorrhea when they had pre-marital or extra-marital sexual intercourse. Women, however, could not get condoms to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy. Similarly, the Nazi government of Germany would not allow the use of condoms, or any other kind of birth control, by its citizens. They were expected to breed warriors to create a one-race world of "Aryans." But the Nazi military did allow soldiers to use condoms to keep them on the front lines instead of crowding their barracks nursing illnesses caused by syphilis and gonorrhea. By World War II, military leaders had a more realistic attitude about condoms. Concerned that "our boys" would bring home diseases and infect their wives, they aggressively promoted the use of condoms. Government training films urged soldiers, "Don't forget-put it on before you put it in." In fact, in 1942, condoms were issued to soldiers during the landing on Dunkirk. They were used to cover and protect rifle barrels from being damaged by salt water as the soldiers waded ashore.

The sexual revolution of the 60s almost put an end to condom use. "Good girls" were willing sex partners, so fewer men turned to professional sex workers, the most prevalent STIs-gonorrhea and syphilis-were easily treated, and the Pill and IUD provided the most effective reversible contraception the world had seen. When HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS, was identified, it became clear that condom use and safer sex could stem the epidemic. Many public health professionals believe that local, state, and federal governments behaved a lot like the social hygienists of the World War I generation as they continued to ignore or deny the need for public condom education. At this point in the epidemic, 25 percent of all HIV infections occur among teenagers-with rates increasing most quickly for teenage women. Yet most school districts still oppose condom distribution among students.

There is an obvious need for a massive, public health condom education campaign. Yet major broadcasting companies typically refuse to air condom ads, and most school districts across the country not only refuse to distribute condoms, they also refuse to provide responsible, reality-based sexuality and AIDS education. Medical professionals and health advocates watch in dismay as history repeats itself, and the promotion of condom use remains a public health controversy.

1000 B.C. - Condom use can be traced back several thousand years. Images from around 1000 BC show the ancient Egyptians wearing linen sheathes. It’s still being debated whether they wore these condom-like sheathes for protection or for ritual.

100-200 A.D. - The earliest evidence of condom use in Europe comes from scenes in cave paintings at Combarelles in France.

1500s - In Italy, research by Gabrielle Fallopius found the linen sheath useful for prevention of infection, and later discovered its usefulness for the prevention of pregnancy.

1700s - The naming of the condom is a bit of a mystery. Some believe it was named for "Dr. Condom," who supplied King Charles II of England with animal tissue sheaths. Others believe the name came from a "Dr. Condon" or "Colonel Cundum." Most likely it came from the Latin word "condom," which means "receptacle."

1844 - Goodyear and Hancock began to mass-produce condoms made out of vulcanized rubber, which is a stronger and more elastic material.

1861 - The first advertisement for condoms was published in an American newspaper when The New York Times printed an ad for "Dr. Power's French Preventatives."

1873 - The Comstock Law was passed. It prohibited the advertising of any sort of birth control, and it also allowed the postal service to confiscate condoms sold through the mail.

1880s - The first latex condom was produced, although it was to be the 1930s before these were in widespread use.

Early 1900s - Social hygienists fought to prohibit the use of condoms by Americans, resulting in U.S. troops in World War I having the highest rate of STDs — over 70%! By World War II, a more realistic attitude had emerged and the government aggressively promoted the use of condoms.

1960s - The sexual revolution of the '60s resulted in a decline in condom use as more and more youth practiced free love — without condom usage.

1980s - HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was identified, and the Surgeon General stated that other than abstinence, the most effective way to protect against HIV is to use a latex condom each and every time you have sex.

1990s - The 1990s saw the introduction of a large number of different types of condoms, including colored condoms, ribbed condoms, studded condoms, flavored condoms, glow-in-the-dark condoms, and large condoms, as well as the first polyurethane condom.

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