Weird History of Birth Control and Contraception

Since people have been engaging in sexual
activities, they have been hoping to be able to in some way control or prevent pregnancy. This has led to some questionable if not flat
out dangerous innovations. From animal poop and intestines, to honey
and stones, to mercury and even tortoise shells, from ancient times on people have tried anything
and everything as a type of contraceptive. While some may have been effective, many were
not, and some were even deadly. Let’s discuss all of these different creations
over time in this episode of the Infographics Show, The Horrible History of Contraception. In 1850 BCE the Egyptians used the waste of
their crocodilian friends of the Nile in their out-of-the-box efforts to prevent pregnancy. Fortunately, it was at least dried out before
being inserted into a woman’s genitalia and mixed first with a bit of sticky honey. Those who used it assumed it would soften
and expand to form a barrier to sperm once inside. As the preferred food of the Nile crocodile
is fish, though it will also feast upon decaying carrion, one can only guess how pleasant its’
feces and its smell is. It’s likely something that even the sweetness
of honey couldn’t fix. To add insult to injury it also didn’t work. In fact, crocodile dung changes the pH of
the body and thus actually improves the odds of conceiving. By 1550 BCE the Egyptians began to mix it
up with applications of acacia leaves and honey. These would sometimes be combined with wool
and lint as a type of sperm-fighting tampon. Now, whoever came up with this idea was really
onto something. Acacia ended up fermenting into lactic acid
within the woman’s body, which does have true spermicidal properties. Further, the application of wool or lint in
the vaginal opening became an effective physical barrier to sperm seeking entry. While it was described in ancient Cretan manuscripts
two thousand years earlier, the Egyptians were among the first known group to wear a
rudimentary condom in 1000 BCE. Though at this point in history they were
made of linen and intended more for disease prevention than as a form of birth control. Beyond this, they were even colored and flaunted
as a type of status symbol among Egyptian men. We have mixed feelings about whether or not
we are sad this is no longer done. By 700 BCE Romans were using the bladders
of goats, sheep and other unfortunate animals as a type of condom similarly to the Egyptians. Because nothing says let’s get it on like
the application of a hollowed-out animal organ that once stored animal urine. However, even at this time, they were still
mostly worn to protect women from sexually transmitted infections and in the interest
of public health rather than to avoid pregnancy. It is believed that later on the Djukas tribe
in New Guinea began to recognize them for their current use in family planning. They also designed a nifty woman’s condom
in efforts at conception prevention. By 220 BCE Romans came up with the worst idea
yet, worse than using animal organs or crocodile poop. A popular method of the region was to place
a hard stone or bronze object up into the woman’s reproductive tract. This worked as a diaphragm or a cervical cap,
but we can safely assume it was far less comfortable than pliable modern-day versions. Dioscorides, a Greek doctor in ancient times,
suggested using peppermint oil when inserting an object of this type meant to block or kill
sperm. This would have numbed the area and given
the woman more comfort during intercourse. But we’re still going to call this a bad
idea nonetheless. Roman gynecologist Soranus had several suggestions
of his own. The first was that women should abstain from
sex during their periods, which he thought was their most fertile time and when they
would be most likely to get pregnant. Of course, for those with a regular and predictable
cycle, this is not the case. He also believed that women should stop breathing
while the man finished and then proceed to perform squats and sneeze to fight the sperm’s
movement in a strange combination of downward pressure and gravity. Finally, they were instructed to clean themselves
in order to fully avoid pregnancy. For obvious reasons, this approach was less
effective than those that used things such as natural spermicides or forms of cervical
blockage. Somewhat surprisingly, it was biblical texts
that followed that described a much less complex method. The Old Testament which experts believe was
first written in ancient Hebrew and originated in either the 6th century B.C. or, due to
newly discovered evidence, as far back as 4 centuries prior, detailed the pull-out method. It was specifically in Genesis when talking
about the actions of a man named Onan that this alternative method still practiced today
was first mentioned. Specifically, Onan used it so that his semen
fell to the ground and would not impregnate his brother’s wife. He was then struck dead by God, some believe,
because he attempted to separate pleasure from the responsibilities of creating life. This indicates that anywhere from this time
on men and women were aware of this way to supposedly delay or prevent parenthood. However, many refer to it not as the pull-out
method but instead as the pull and pray one. They have a good reason. Doctors find that 28 of every 100 women who
use this as their sole form of contraception will become pregnant within the span of a
year. In the case of 10th century Persia, it’s
likely that the chances of women conceiving were even higher. This is because they followed beliefs that
had women not squatting down but jumping in the backwards direction. They were told to jump a magical number of
times which would encourage any sperm within them to fall out. Those who failed to jump seven or nine times
would not experience any benefits while those who did would remain baby-free. If only it were that easy. In contrast, the ancient Chinese habit of
drinking liquid mercury or ingesting mercury tablets definitely made an impact, though
not its intended one. While they were hoping it would prevent pregnancy,
it’s not exactly known how much of an effect it had in that area. Unless we are talking about a woman’s death
and thus her inability to do anything at all let alone procreate. This is because mercury is a highly poisonous
neurotoxin that can cause muscle weakness and twitching, headaches, respiratory failure,
and, as we just mentioned, an untimely death. For these reasons, this practice was eventually
discontinued. 12th century China had more success as a result
of the country’s use of a less fatal method. Taking advantage of their vast knowledge in
the production of silk, they created a penile sheath of silk paper. To this they also added some oily lube. However, the purpose of this oil was not only
to enhance pleasure but in the belief it could also help impair sperm health and movement. China was not the only area to have a few
historical rough patches in their pregnancy prevention technology. Dangerous contraceptive measures were also
used in 4th century Greece. In addition to the likely pleasant combinations
of frankincense and cedar oils, thought to act as spermicides, women would sometimes
anoint themselves internally with lead. They would even drink the water used by blacksmiths,
contaminated with the same metal, for pregnancy termination purposes. Unfortunately, lead poisoning is quite serious
and can lead to increased blood pressure, pain, impaired memory, headaches, and mental
disorders. It does cause a lower sperm count in men and
miscarriage, premature birth, or stillbirth among the babies of women, but it does so
at a cost. Incredibly, sources claim that women thought
of lead exposure as helpful for pregnancy prevention as late in history as World War
1. While technically safer than metal ingestion,
13th century Japan ranks up there with the Rome’s use of bronze objects or rocks for
the method likely to bring the least comfort of pleasure to women, let alone men. One civilization created what was called a
Kabuta-Gata which was essentially a covering for the male reproductive organ made from
the shell of a tortoise. The good news was that it was also, though
much more infrequently, fashioned from a more pliable leather. In the case of a shell, nothing says romance
like a hard, inflexible covering on your appendage. The good thing about the contraption was that
those with erectile dysfunction could often treat or disguise their condition. It is likely that the recipient of their affections
would be unaware of almost anything but their pain. It was in the 14th century that anatomist
Gabriele Falloppio suggested the use of a superior condom in England. These protective covers weren’t as fancy
as Chinese silken versions but were better than Japanese shells and were made out of
linen. Further, they had some extra decoration and
were tied off at the top with a flair of ribbon. During the European Renaissance condoms made
out of animal intestines became increasingly popular. This was in an effort to, once again, prevent
disease transmission as well as to keep in check any nightly transgressions of the royals
that would result in illegitimate children. Any intestines were fair game, from the smaller
fish to larger sheep depending on the size necessary. The Middle Ages of Europe saw some stranger
trends in contraception efforts. Women were given weasel testicles and were
instructed to tie them on their bodies while engaging in sexual activities. It’s hard to picture getting down and dirty
with reproductive organs from a furry mammal wrapped around your thighs or neck. However, in England at the time this was not
only an accepted but encouraged thing to do. The Elizabethan period in 16th century England
brought about some less disgusting though potentially quite painful ideas. Women were told to wash their intimate areas
both externally and internally with acetic acid, or in other words, vinegar. Prostitutes of the time would soak sponges
in the stuff and then apply it before intercourse as a way to kill off sperm. As we just mentioned, this contains acid,
though it is quite dilute. However, in the case of any cuts or sores
it would be sure to sting quite intensely. Another stinging object was described in the
memoirs of the infamous Italian heartthrob Glaucoma Casanova. Casanova was rumored to have seduced many
of the female population and knew a thing or two about not ruining romance with daddy
duty. His technique was to cut a lemon in half and
then hollow out all of its insides. This hollowed half a fruit would then be inserted
inside the woman as a type of cervical cap. This natural approach was mimicked much later
on with rubber versions that used the same underlying concept. These were available on the market by 1927. Surprisingly, crazy contraception ideas weren’t
reserved for just long-ago societies. As recently as the 1950s, people believed
that the carbonic acid within carbonated soft drinks would kill sperm and that their sugar
content induced sperm combustion. After intercourse women would take a bottle,
shake it up, and then insert it within themselves while opening it. While this was undoubtedly quite entertaining
to observe it was rather unsurprisingly proven to be not at all effective. Clearly, despite this strange 1950 behavior,
contraception has made significant strides since antiquity. We can be quite glad for the improvements
to these scary, at times painful, and occasionally deadly attempts at birth control throughout
history. Though in some areas, changes did not take
place to make modern forms of birth control widely available, let alone acceptable until
surprisingly recently. All forms of contraception were illegal in
Ireland in 1935 until 1985, though the pill was available in the instance of a medical
disorder. The pill wasn’t available in the United
States until 1960 when it received FDA approval and in Japan it wasn’t legalized until as
recently as 1999. Though, as they say, better late than never. Now that we’ve covered this horrible history
of contraception, we wonder, will you ever look at honey, lemons, or soda the same way
again? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video
called Worst Punishments In History of Mankind! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t
forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!

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