Condoms are the most effective form of contraception throughout Europe and the rest of the world, highly successful in preventing both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Wearing a condom might be an unwanted necessity for most, but it’s interesting to see how the condom – as we know it today – has changed over hundreds, or even thousands, of years since its first arrival.
The earliest unequivocal evidence of a condom dates back to the 16th century, when the Italian anatomist Gabriele Falloppio advocated the use of condoms, in written text. Other reports, however, suggest there is a reason to believe the condom may pre-date this first evidence to as far back as 15,000BC.
Deciphering Ancient Carvings & Paintings
There are many varying theories as to how long the condom has been in existence, with the first dates inconclusively scattered between 15,000BC and 1,000BC depending on the study in question.
Researchers argue that the 15,000BC carvings found in the French Grotte Des Combarelles caves represent an ancient person wearing a condom, although it seems somewhat dubious to us.
The 1000BC paintings found in ancient Egyptian temples appear more convincing as a sign of genuine condom use. They supposedly depict tribesmen using linen sheaths – similar to those described by Falloppio in 1550 – to protect themselves from infections and insect bites.
Interestingly, a female condom is described in the ancient Greek legend of Minos, the king of Crete. This myth was recounted by Antoninus Liberalis in the 2nd Century AD, but was set in the 4th and 5th centuries BC.
According to the legend, King Minos’ semen had been infected with “snakes and scorpions”, which killed his mistresses when he ejaculated! Procris, indebted to Minos, had the idea of placing a goat’s bladder in the vagina of his female partner for protection, which protected the women from the deadly semen!
Reports of the Asian Glans condoms in the 1400s, which covered just the tip of the penis for birth control, are widely accepted by historians. These were reportedly made from animal intestine, oiled paper or tortoiseshell in China & Japan.
It wasn't until the medieval times that we began to gather some hard evidence of condom use. Gabriele Falloppio’s legendary 16th Century condom was a specially treated linen sheath, which he boasted - during a catastrophic outbreak of Syphilis in 1550 – protected all 1,100 men involved in his research from catching the deadly disease. He mentioned in the report that these life-saving condoms were made-to-measure, and were fastened at the base with a ribbon.
The oldest condom ever found was discovered at Dudley Castle in the West Midlands, England, and dated as far back as 1642. It was preserved in the airless sludge of a medieval toilet and made from animal intestine, similar to those used to encase sausages today. During the English civil war, King Charles I issued these free condoms to put an end to his troops’ high fatality rate as a result of syphilis contracted from prostitutes.
Medieval intestine condoms were very expensive, and subsequently limited to the upper classes, such as Casanova. He can be seen in the now-famous drawing, below, blowing up his condom to check for holes whilst entertaining prostitutes in the mid 18th Century. It is known that the re-usable condoms would cost the equivalent of an average working man’s weekly wage.
We can start to see the word ‘condom’ used, when in 1666 the word ‘condon’ (sic) was published for the first time after the English Birth Rate Commission concluded that this form of contraception was the reason for the falling birth rates at the time.
The introduction of vulcanised rubber by Charles Goodyear in 1839 was a huge breakthrough, finally making the manufacture of condoms scalable. For the first time in history, people on low incomes could afford to buy cheap condoms.
The early “rubbers” still had a long way to go before they would become the quality that we enjoy using now. In the 1850s they had a three-month expiry date, were as thick as bicycle inner tubes (measuring in at 55mm thick!), and smelt of intense sulphur. Interestingly, it was possible at this early date to mail-order condoms, and have them sent straight to your home!
Unfortunately, the growth of the US condom industry was given a setback in 1873 with the Comstock federal legislation. This new law banned the advertising and sale of birth control and empowered the postal service to confiscate condoms sold through the mail. This effectively outlawed contraception, forcing condoms onto the black market, and subsequently assisted the increasing rate of STIs.
It took the outbreak of World War One to kickstart the return of contraceptives. Having contracted diseases including syphilis and gonorrhea, as many as 15% of the allied forces were unable to fight on the front line. Over a two-year period, this cost the US military $50 million in treatment, and the incapacitating effect of STDs was having a significant impact on the chances of victory. Despite this, the only action was the deployment of prophylactic kits, which contained a painful antiseptic ointment and urethral syringes to use post-intercourse, but no condoms.
Latex Condoms – Thin & Strong
Prior to World War One, in 1912 Julius Fromm had invented a new manufacturing technique known as “cement dipping”, which eventually led to the invention of Latex rubber. “Cement dipping” was the liquefying of rubber with the addition of, at first, gasoline or benzene, and from 1920, water - which enabled the invention of Latex.
The new method of suspending rubber in water required less labour than traditional rubber, owing to the now-redundant smoothing process; and without the use of gasoline or benzene, it was much safer. Latex condoms were also a significantly improved end product. They were thinner, stronger, seamless and much longer lasting.
As the manufacturing industry grew in the 1920s and 30s, the “cement dipping” process benefitted from automated machinery. This marked an important change, as condoms could be made much faster with less manpower, and for a significantly lower price.
The modern era of safe condoms began in 1937 when the US Food and Drug Administration labelled condoms as a drug. This meant that manufacturers had to meet minimum “acceptable” requirements. A sign of the expectations for the future, the initial tests had a pass rate of just 25%! This forced new quality control measures and testing on the industry to achieve truly reliable condoms, which was in place by 1938. Early adopters of the new standards were Youngs Rubber Company and London Rubber Company, producing Trojan and Durex in the USA & UK respectively.
By the outbreak of World War II – with the help of the recent government certifications and red tape – condoms were widely given out by the military to soldiers. Even the Germans gave out free condoms to their troops, despite their 1941 law, which had outlawed all civilian condom use. Interestingly, despite a major rubber shortage, the manufacture of condoms was never restricted. They were also promoted as an object of patriotism to be used by anyone wanting to stay fit and healthy to keep in fighting shape.
The popularity of condoms after World War Two continued to increase as shifts in society and disease emerged. In 1957 Durex improved the technology with the release of the first lubricated condom. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, 50% of reproductive-aged UK citizens were using condoms, and this increased further with the sexual revolution as young people began to have more sex with more strangers.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, most of the remaining worldwide government restrictions on the sale and advertising of condoms were lifted. The final US Comstock laws were defeated in 1965, and France removed its anti birth-control laws in 1967. In Ireland, condoms were sold legally for the first time as late as 1978.
The HIV & Aids epidemic in the early 1980s further increased the practice of safe sex. This struck a chord with many people: a condom really could be the difference between life and death.
Throughout the 1990s innovative condoms began to come in different shapes and sizes, with a host of different features including ribs, dots, warming, cooling, flavoured and delaying to help men last longer during sex. Thanks to the film ‘Skin Deep’, glow in the dark condoms were invented to meet the demand.
With increased usage in the mega-populations of the developing world, the condom industry is bigger now than it ever has been before. There are over 18.5 billion condoms sold across the world every year, and it remains the most effective form of contraception and disease prevention. The UK & Europe’s favourite condom retailer tingle.com was founded in 2008, and we are excited to move into the future with affordable condoms and continue to enable safe & enjoyable sex.