Published On: Sun, Nov 18th, 2012

Warning Warning Don’t Try This At Home

Warning Warning Don't Try This At HomeIf you think your options for contraception now are a bit limited, you might be right. We can send people to outer space, and yet there’s not a foolproof method of birth-control without side effects or inconveniences.

Yet, spare a thought for a woman living in 1910. Her best and safest form of birth control was convincing her husband to sleep on the verandah! Abstinence was a commonly used form of birth control, once a woman had a few children already. It was of course very reliable, if both partners agreed to it, and kept it up. But if you cheated even just a little – well, unlucky sex just once a year could still lead to the annual baby.

Or she might turn to “withdrawal”, also called “coitus interruptus”, or more colloquially “getting off the train at Redfern”! It relied on a man’s commitment and self control, and even then, it wasn’t especially reliable, as sneaky little sperm could be released quite early in the act. But even though it wasn’t foolproof – and many women had a little slip – it was still better than nothing. Even if it is only 50 or 60% effective, that is still a big increase on no birth control at all.

Condoms were another option. They had originally been made from animal skins, but from the 1840s, condoms could be made from rubber. They were invented originally to protect men from catching STDs when they visited a brothel, so they quite an air of “unrespectability” about them. A polite woman should not know about a condom, and this was a major reason why they were not used very enthusiastically until at least after World War II. They were also quite expensive, and many people would rinse and reuse them!

Other options are contraceptives we haven’t even heard of today. One was the dissolving pessary, which generally contained quinine and cocoa butter. Inserted into the woman directly before sex, they would kill or inhibit the sperm. Again, they were not a very effective form of birth control, with many little “accidents” along the way. Other women without much money would use sponges soaked in lemon juice or quinine. These could all be quite abrasive for the woman, though they did not interfere with a man’s pleasure as much as a condom.

The other main alternative was the douche or syringe. This was often unavailable to working class women, for it relied on a ready source of water, which wasn’t possible when the closest tap was down the street. But for middle class women with water and privacy, the syringe was fairly popular. Again, however, the solutions used were quite caustic, including Lysol that is similar to carbolic acid, and is now used on hospital floors.

There was still a lot of confusion over what were safe and effective forms of birth control. Much of the advice in circulation from doctors about birth control was wrong. As late as 1903, well respected doctors were still claiming sex without female orgasm would not lead to conception. Others suggested a woman could simply cough after sex, to release the sperm!

Also recommended was the safe time method. We know this to be problematic even now, calculating fertility using only dates, but it was even worse in these times. Doctors believed the “safe time” was around the middle of the month, and the “danger” period straight after menstruation. This is the exact opposite to what we know to be “safe”.

We can see from these lengths just how keen women were to prevent pregnancy. Despite the poor choices, they continued on, limiting their families whenever they could. But many of these methods were not exactly failsafe. It’s probably not surprising that in 1910 around one-third of new brides were already pregnant on their wedding day!

By Dr. Lisa Featherstone
University of Newcastle
Copyright 2012

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Dr. Lisa Featherstone is  an Australian historian primarily interested in the history of bodies, especially the history of sexuality and the history of reproduction. She is published widely on sexuality, masculinity, childbirth, race and medicine, and child health. Her book, Let’s Talk About Sex (2011) explores a range of Australian sexualities in early twentieth century Australia.

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