Make-Your-Own Condoms

A history of the rubber.


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Not long after the Renaissance doctor Gabriello Fallopio invented a silk prototype for the condom in 1564 (see “Columbus Discovers the Clitoris”), European men-about-town took to wearing so-called “gold-beater skins” woven from the dried intestines of sheep, calves, and horses. The learned scholar H. M. Hines speculates that it was a slaughterhouse worker who first came up with this technological advance, aiming for a more durable yet still sensitive sheath. The finest quality examples, produced by skilled Italian artisans, were hand-sewn at one end and tied by an elegant ribbon at the other; they were wickedly expensive, but could be washed, dried, and reused.

Acceptance of the invention was slow all over Europe. In 1671, the French noblewoman Madame de Sévigné warned her daughter that condoms were worse than useless in the bedroom, “armour against enjoyment, and a spider web against danger.” Young Casanova blew them up like balloons to amuse girls at parties; later in life, riddled with STDs, he reluctantly donned “the English raincoat,” as Italians now dubbed the sheaths, despite complaints from one mistress that she could feel no affection for ce petit personage when hidden away. In England, “French letters” went on sale in several specialty shops run by women with warm, domestic names like Mrs. Philips and Mrs. Perkins. James Boswell became an avid fan, boasting that he invited a comely wench to Westminster Bridge and there “in armour complete did I enjoy her upon this noble edifice.” But even Boswell was not always satisfied: His diary reports in 1764, “Quite agitated. Put on condom; entered. Heart beat; fell. Quite sorry…”

The first person to publicly extol the contraceptive virtues of the condom was the Englishman Richard Carlisle, whose 1826 opus, Every Woman’s Book, or What is Love?   became a bestseller. Carlisle noted that condoms could be purchased in London from waiters at most reputable taverns, but suggested to British girls that they never leave home without their sponges. Ever since the ancient Greeks, dried sponges and sheep’s bladders inserted into the vagina had been used as rudimentary diaphragms. “The French and Italian women wear them fastened to their waists,” notes Carlisle, “and always have them at hand.” If caught, women should fall back on coitus interruptus, the withdrawal method, to avoid conception. European women “make this part of the contract before intercourse, and look upon the man as a dishonest brute who does not attend to it.”

Incidentally, the name “condom” first appeared in English in 1665, in a poem, A Panegyric upon Cundum, by syphilitic literary genius John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. For many years, it was rumored that a certain Colonel Condom, royal physician, had invented the device for the randy English King Charles II to stop him producing more bastard progeny, but exhaustive modern searches have shown that the man did not exist. • 7 April 2008

SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Margolis, Johathan, O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm, (London, 2004); Angus McLaren, A History of Contraception: From Antiquity to the Present Day, (Oxford, 1990). The most detailed treatment is Dr H. Youssef, “The History of the Condom,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 86, 1993, pp 226-9.

Tony Perrottet's book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.