A Slim, Regular and Large History of the Condom

Condoms, which had sales of over 35 million units in 2020, were likely the first form of protection you used during your first sexual experience. Currently, condoms are the only form of contraception that protects against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but where did the condom come from and what made it become one of the most popular forms of contraception to date?

BY THE ROAM TEAM 8 MIN READ

WORDS TO KNOW
Vegan condoms

Vegan condoms don't use animal products or test on animals. They are also made of environmentally friendly products, like natural rubber latex, just like here at Roam.

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The oldest condom (not recommended for use)

The earliest condom ever discovered was actually found in the West Midlands, in a cesspit within the grounds of Dudley Castle, a now ruined fortification. It was here, apparently, that soldiers stationed at the castle got it on, likely during the period of the Civil War. The condom, dating back as early as 1642, was made from animal membrane, a material we wouldn't recommend for use today. Back then, however, without natural rubber latex to hand, it was the best they could do.

Contraception...olden day style.

Whether condoms were used by ancient civilisations is the subject of much debate amongst historians and archaeologists, particularly seeing as some discoveries of so-called ‘condoms’ are hard to prove they were used to prevent pregnancy at all. However, it certainly was true that in Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires, small families were preferred (less kids is a hell of a lot cheaper) and did practice a variety of birth control methods.

For these societies, contraception was, without argument, a woman’s issue and female-controlled devices were prevalent, such as pessaries (a device inserted into the vagina) and amulets (the latter being a lot more ineffective).

Whether condom-like devices were also used is unclear, but some literature does contain references to similar methods, particularly in reference to anal intercourse or the pull-out method.

What were condoms made of?

Many diverse and unexpected materials have been used to make a condom-like device throughout time to try and find the best solution to the condom. In Japan, meanwhile, condoms called kabuto-gata were made of tortoise shell or animal horn (skin to skin feel clearly didn’t mean much back then). Glans condoms, which only cover the head of the penis, were used in Asia prior to the 15th century and were made of oiled silk paper or lamb intestines. During the Renaissance, condoms were made out of intensives or bladder. A few steps away from vegan condoms nowadays

The beginning of the modern condom

The earliest uncontested use of a condom occurred in 16th-century Italy, when Gabriele Falloppio, an anatomist and physician, recommeded use of a linen sheath soaked in chemicals and drier to cover the penis, tied on with a ribbon. After the publication of this book, De Morbo Gallico, use of penis coverings were described throughout literature. 

Not all good press is good press

In the 1700s, condoms were recognised as resulting in the lowest fertility rate ever seen in England, yet notable English physician, Daniel Turner, condemned the condom, saying it didn’t offer full protection against syphilis. Later arguments against their use also included on grounds of immorality, which, in a staunchly religious England, held a lot of weight.

Amongst all the backlash, however, the condom market grew rapidly. In the 18th century, condoms were available in a variety of qualities and sizes, still made from either chemically treated linen or ‘skin’ (which was bladder or intensive softened by treatment with sulphur and lye). Sold at pubs, chemists and at the theatre, condoms boomed throughout Europe and Russia. Because they were relatively expensive, condoms were also generally only used by the upper classes.

Rubbers, rubbers and more rubbers

The first rubber condom was produced in 1855 after the discovery of the rubber vulcanisation process. Because of latex's cream, yellow-like colour, condoms to date have largely only matched Caucasian, or 'fair' skin tones. But nowadays, the need for skin tone condoms to match all shades is increasing. By the late 1850s, rubber condoms were in mass production, leading to the euphemism ‘rubbers’. The earliest rubber condoms only covered the head of the penis (the glans) and doctors had to measure each man specially to order his exact size. From here on out, the rubbers, as they say, are history. 

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