Love & Sex

A Brief History of Condoms

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In honor of the Gates Foundation's challenge to create a better condom, we present a timeline of wrapping it up, from chemical-soaked sheaths to lubricated Durex

The future is here folks, and it smells like latex. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is offering up $100,000 of initial funding to go towards designing the “next generation of condoms.” What does “next generation” mean, exactly? It means male condoms that don’t decrease pleasure (a time-honored complaint) and female condoms that are both easier to use and more affordable. 

What will this miracle condom look like, we wonder. Will it be metallic or bedazzled or have a GPS tracking system embedded in it? Will Siri be able to put one on for you?

GrandChallenges.org is now accepting ideas and prototypes, so to get your creative condom juices flowing, we’ve decided to take a look back at how condoms have evolved throughout the years. Here’s looking at you, 16th century chemical-soaked sheath. 

1.  Ancient Greek and Roman societies
It’s still debated by historians whether or not male condoms were used this far back in time. Ancient societies in Greece and Rome mainly viewed birth control as the woman’s responsibility (there’s a surprise) and the only documented forms of birth control from this time are female-controlled, like pessaries (similar to a diaphragm). Most historians interpret texts from this time as referring to “coitus interruptus,” otherwise known as “withdrawal,” or, “was that the doorbell?”.

2. 15th century
Limited use of glans condoms (condoms that only cover the head of the penis) is documented in Asia prior to the 15th century. As was common for birth control at the time, glans condoms seem to only have been used by the upper classes. In China, the may have been made of oiled silk paper, or lamb intestine, but in Japan, they were often made of tortoise shell or animal horn. Ouch. 

3. 16th century
After the outbreak of syphilis, then known as the “French Disease,” Italian physician Gabriele Falloppio (best known as the king of Fallopian tubes) recommended a birth control device he designed: a chemical-soaked sheath wrapped around the head of the penis and tied on with a ribbon. Like a pretty, STD-free present. 

4. 17th century
The oldest condoms ever excavated dated back to 1642 and were found in an antiquated sewage system in England. Around this time, Dutch traders brought condoms made of “fine leather” to Japan. Unlike those rough-sounding animal horn condoms used previously, these condoms covered the entire penis.

5. 18th century
Despite much opposition (like requests to Parliament to outlaw condom use), the condom market grew steadily and rapidly. Most were made from animal bladders and intestines and lined with chemicals. They were sold at pubs, theaters, and even barber shops (for that post-haircut confidence boost) throughout Europe and Russia.

6. 19th century
For the first time in history, condoms were promoted and distributed to the poorer classes. Texts from this time still cite condoms as expensive and flawed: they often contained multiple holes and would frequently fall off during sex. But hey—what's a little unprotected adventure between friends?

7. World War I
Latex was invented in 1920, and with it came something similar to the condom as we know it today. During World War I, the United States and (initially) Britain were the only countries in Europe who did not provide condoms to their soldiers, and by the end of the war there were almost 400,000 documented cases of syphilis and gonorrhea in the American military. U.S.A.!

8. World War II
During World War II, the U.S. military hopped on the bandwagon and distributed condoms to male soldiers. They also coined fun safe-sex slogans like this gem: "Don't forget — put it on before you put it in."

9. 1950s-70s
In 1957, Durex introduced the world's first lubricated condom. From 1955–1965, 42% of sexually-active people relied on condoms for birth control. In the UK, 60% of married couples used condoms.

10. 1980s-90s
Following the AIDS crisis, condoms were sold in a wider variety of retail outlets, including in supermarkets and in discount department stores. In 1991, Condomania (America’s first condom emporium), opened in New York City.

11. Today
Once again ahead of the game, Durex was also the first condom brand to have a website, launched in 1997. Condom use is expected to continue to grow around the world: the global condom market is expected to reach $6 billion by 2015, with increased use in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.