Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Safe Sex?

As you may have gathered from this blog or other texts of the 18th century, sex was a common amusement of the 18th century. The new freedoms of speech and ideas of the Enlightenment allowed for sex to not be talked of only behind closed doors but also commonly read about and seen in the art of the time. Yes, sex was everywhere and everyone was having it. That is why there were so many illegitimate children being born of aristocratic ladies and then quickly shipped off to be raised by foster mothers, preferably in France. But for as long as humans have been having sex for recreation, there has been means of contraception. The 18th century was no exception to this. Although, it may not seem so if you've been keeping up with your weekly tarts.

The most common and ineffective use of contraception in the 18th century is one still commonly practiced today, "pulling out." Coitus Interruptus was popular based on the fact that it was cheap and handy. That is, until its participants realized how ineffective it really was.
For those more willing to spend some money and more worried about getting a venereal disease there were condoms (image at right circa 1900). These were commonly called, "machines" and made from the intestines of various animals, usually sheep. They were produced in Covent Garden (or course) and distributed at the various sleazy shops in the same area. When you bought one of these "machines" you bought it with the intention of using it more than once. The condom usually came in packaging for safekeeping and the very end was folded over and stitched with a silk ribbon (usually pink) at the end to tie and secure. Washing was recommended but was probably not commonly done. Although these sheaths may have helped protect against STDs they weren't that successful as contraceptives; they were semi-permeable. Water could go right through them. Not to mention they were prone to tears. So that's where all those illegitimate kids came from.


  1. i am laughing so hard right now at this post! this is awesomely hilarious because i was just thinking about this.

    i knew that this was being "used" but often have wondered why all of these children were still being they really ever knew who the father was...and how they really knew their due date...and the fact that these women were just baby producing and prego all of the time????

    these are the nitty gritty's that i've never really learned that much about. i know that there was a method but am still learning...obviously :)

  2. I read a lot of historical romances and I've always wondered why none of the aristocratic men pull out one of these items to use! Mainly what you see is the ole vinegar on the sponge trick. Or douching afterwards. There is a great scene in the newer version of The Forsythe Saga when Irene does this after having sex with Soames.

  3. Having recently made a foray into the history of condoms, I loved your post! How far we'e come from "reusable" condoms.

  4. Awesome read.
    But when they discovered that the 'machines' were not working so well, did they have any upgrades? Did they try different things?
    How is it that they didn't give up on the glove? Someone must've been determined enough to make it work... though there are still warnings on the package today, lol.

    "We didn't plan you, the condom broke!"

  5. I'm glad you all liked the post!

    Re: Eliz-
    *shivers at the thought*
    Re: EA-
    I forget who it was who recommended that it was best to wear two of these semi-permeable condoms at once!

  6. Straight forward and to the point. I had known about the sheep skin condoms, but your illustrations are priceless. Thanks for this wonderful early morning chuckle.

  7. The vinegar saturated sponge does not work. That my wife bore 6 children in 9 years should attest to that. Of course, living in the capital city of the Holy Roman Empire, we are forbidden to use any kind of birth control, but then, Il Papa does not sleep at the foot of our bed, does he?


  8. As a mature Georgian lady reenactor who is particularly interested in women's medicinal contributions to daily health care (i.e. the still room and traditional herbal medicine) I was given by one of our medical colleagues a waxed cloth version which was the alternative to the animal gut variety. Since I work with Light Infantry men I changed all the red ribbon for green, copied it, and our heroic Captain passed them out to the troop on parade at Waterloo a couple of years ago! Caused no end of hilarity!