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Everything About Epublishing
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Epublishing: A Different Way
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Your Milage May Vary
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Jamie Lynn
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Sex Is All Metaphors
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The Accidental Pornographer
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The End of Innocence
by Lisabet Sarai

Get Them Off in High Style
Helena Settimana

So, You Want To Write Erotica?
by Hanne Blank

Web Gems
Hot Movies For Her

The Humble Little Condom: A History
by Aine Collier

Book Review by Rob Hardy

The Humble Little Condom: A History by Aine Collier“It is the story of the human spirit, with all its flaws and foibles.”  A book on this subject must surely be about something lofty, like aviation or inoculations.  But the words are from Aine Collier’s introduction to her book, The Humble Little Condom: A History (Prometheus Books).  For a long while, even into the twentieth century, merely mentioning the condom in print could get you into trouble, so just looking into the pages of this funny and idiosyncratic history should be a reminder that we are living in an unprecedented time of open communication on sexuality, though, darn it, there are reminders in the last chapters of just how backwards we still are in some ways.  There seems to be through the centuries the same sort of pattern, where cultures discover that sheathing the male member has benefits in reducing disease or pregnancies, but then the established church or government rail against such sheaths because they don’t think the delights of sex should be unlinked from the punishment of the consequences.  Collier is an academic, but this is a fizzy, fact-filled text with lots of sidebars.  It is as if Collier is saying that using a condom ought to be fun, so reading even a history that goes back twelve thousand years ought to be fun, too.

The ancient Egyptians used papyrus, probably more to protect the wearer from “uncleanliness” rather than for birth control.  The Chinese used oiled silk or paper, and also, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, used animal gut, still available today.  In the Middle Ages, there was a surprising amount of information on birth control generated by monks not only copying old recipes, but also experimenting with concoctions (some now recognized as having active ingredients) to keep a pregnancy from happening.  The Catholic condemnation of contraception was not always definite; Pope John XXI of the thirteenth century was trained as a doctor, and catalogued the herbs that could be used for birth control, and he recommended a condom made from a paste of hemlock.  However, he recommended this paste cover the testicles.  The Renaissance may have brought new science and technology to other spheres, but did not bring much innovation to condoms.  The guilds of the sausage makers didn’t just make sausages.  They cleaned and treated animal intestines and sold them to condom-makers.  Glovers, those who made gloves (Shakespeare’s father was one), were allied to the sausage makers, and it isn’t just coincidence that “glove” was used as a synonym for the condom. 

Synonyms are a big part of the story here, since sex makes us anxious (at least some of us) and we have the habit of finding nicer names for worrisome articles.  Letter, overcoat, bladder, machine, shield, preservative, prophylactic, pro, and plenty of others have been used (of course Collier lists them).  One nation tended to “blame” other nations for the condom.  The English might call the item a “French letter”, while the French would return the compliment by naming it la capote Anglaise, “the English cape”.  Despite the legends, there was no inventor Dr. Condum, even though some standard dictionaries say the name for the condom is an eponym.  (Collier does not mention it, but the Oxford English Dictionary says not only that the origin is unknown, but specifically that “no 18th-cent. physician named Condom or Conton has been traced though a doctor so named is often said to be the inventor of the sheath.”)  Like many ancient words for useful devices, “condom” has a hazy etymology, perhaps from the Latin condus which means both “preserve” and “receptacle”, or cumdum which is a false scabbard worn over a sword.

The great innovation in materials for condoms came with the development of rubber.  The firms Goodrich and Goodyear are synonymous with rubber goods like tires, but before tires they were producing rubber diaphragms, sexual toys, and condoms.  Those first rubbers were nothing like the ones we have now.  They were advertised as lasting for a lifetime, as long as they were washed after every use, an indication not only of durability but of how thick, stiff, and uncomfortable they must have been.  It was only when they became thinner, and disposable, that they could compete against those made from guts.  The latex version debuted in 1920.  There has been a proposal for a liquid condom that should have a perfect fit: “The man using it must insert his member into a spray can, press a button, and on goes a painted condom.”  A German firm has designed a program that makes a three dimensional computer image of the member, and then for a $1,200 fee designs the perfect condom for him; he can have them monogrammed, too.

Technology, as it tends to do, moves inexorably forward, but with condoms there has always been a backlash.  The military often advances social change; General Pershing, when commanding troops along the Mexican-American border, successfully mandated a system of clean brothels and issued condoms, but he knew better than to advertise his success.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ordered that every American sailor serving overseas be issued a prophylaxis kit.  His boss, the Secretary of the Navy, was away on business when FDR issued the order, and retracted it; he was a fundamentalist Christian who believed that venereal disease was divine punishment for fornicators.  He wasn’t the most famous foe of condoms in the military.  Anthony Comstock had been a Union soldier who alienated his fellows by deliberately pouring out his daily ration of whiskey onto the ground.  There was plenty of condom use by both sides in the Civil War, but Comstock would have none of it.  After his discharge, he helped form an offshoot of the YMCA to suppress vice, and he was especially rabid over condoms and birth control.  He tried to prosecute anyone who merely lectured publicly about contraception.  He couldn’t do anything against the big rubber manufacturers who had paid up their lobbying dues, but he put small companies out of business. 

In World War I, America’s soldiers were the only force in Europe that were not given a standard issue of condoms.  In World War II, the lesson had been learned.  Posters promoted the slogan: “If you can’t say no, take a pro.”  Again, the military was operating out of simple practicality; a soldier in the hospital for venereal disease was as negligible a fighting asset as one wounded by shrapnel.  Some civilians complained that soldiers were not being taught to control themselves and were being issued excuses to behave immorally.  This attitude toward members of our military seems to have faded; twenty years ago any of them could go to a military pharmacy and get condoms free just for asking (as could members of their families).  Our concern has shifted to our young people, with official funding for sexual education only as long as it promotes having no sex.  Dr. C. Everett Koop, with full conservative credentials, worked against the silence of the Reagan administration on AIDS and condoms, but people still get upset at the idea that their children may learn about condoms in the schools.  We are not doing nearly so well as in Sweden where advice to young people about contraception was made explicit and condoms were made free to them, or Norway where the attitude has been encouraged that it is an insult for a man not to use a condom with any partner to whom he is not married.  Collier quotes condom pioneer Phil Harvey: “They are so simple and so effective.  They’re cheap, they work anywhere in the world, and they fit everybody.”  Collier’s amiable, informal review (it is arranged chronologically, but is within each chapter often a grab-bag of facts) helps show a history of ambivalence toward what ought to be a tool that is not only fun to use but can prevent the scourges of disease and overpopulation.

Rob Hardy
April 2008

The Humble Little Condom: A History

(Prometheus Books, October 30, 2007; ISBN-10: 1591025567)
Available at: / Amazon UK

© 2008 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

About the Reviewer:†
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
WebBio: Rob Hardy

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'08 Movie Reviews

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The Fold
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'08 Book Reviews


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