Detail of the illustrated cover of a book.

Contraceptive Knowledge in the Mid-19th-Century United States

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Donna J. Drucker, MLS, PhD, Senior Advisor, English as the Language of Instruction at Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany. Here, Dr. Drucker explores the changing availability of knowledge about contraception.

A mint like plant with purple flowers.
Pennyroyal plant, 2011
Courtesy Gardenology.org

What do pennyroyal, fish skins, horse riding, and ergot of rye have in common? They are all contraceptive methods that have been used for centuries. In preliterate societies, information on regulating pregnancy was likely passed down orally from one generation of women to the next as they helped each other with pregnancies, births, and child spacing. In the mid-nineteenth-century US, however, more and more women were literate and information was more securely captured in print. Examining three mid-nineteenth century medical guides, available online and searchable in the NLM Digital Collections, shows the range of information available to those who could access and read books.

One starting point for English-language lay knowledge about sex and reproduction in print is the publication of the anonymous and explicit Aristotle’s Problems in 1595. Aristotle’s reputation as a source of sexual expertise was perpetuated in Aristotle’s Masterpiece, first published in 1684. However, a review of US antebellum contraceptive advice can start with Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, 1832 (1st edition). Knowlton was the first native-born American physician to publish specific instructions for preventing pregnancy. He recommended that women insert a small sponge tied with a string  into their vaginas during intercourse and use a douche afterward to wash away the sperm. The douche should be a “solution of sulphate of zinc, of alum, pear-ash, or any salt that acts chemically on the semen.” If these products were unavailable, he recommended douching with plain water. Knowlton served time in jail for obscenity, but that did not stop him and his successors from continuing to publish contraceptive information.

The illustrated cover of a book.
Aristotle’s Master-Piece, 1846
National Library of Medicine #8709661

Contraceptive information was circulated in subsequent editions of Aristotle’s Masterpiece and The Fruits of Philosophy, along with similar titles. Both A.M. Mauriceau’s The Married Woman’s Private Medical Companion, 1847 and J. Soule’s Science of Reproduction and Reproductive Control, 1856 reiterated and expanded on Knowlton’s advice.  According to the historian Janet Farrell Brodie, A.M. Mauriceau was a pseudonym for Joseph F. Trow, the brother of Ann Trow Lohman, who sold contraceptives and provided abortions in New York City under the alias “Madame Restell” from the 1840s through the 1870s. The Married Woman’s Medical Companion provided advice under the auspices of increasing Madam Restell’s business. J. Soule was probably the name that Rochester, New York-based physician Asa Soule used for his publications.

Mauriceau advocated teas with pennyroyal, motherwort, thyme, aloes, and tansy to bring about menstruation. His book also promoted the sale of condoms along with a French spermicide called “M. Desomeaux’s Preventive to Conception” (142). Soule listed withdrawal, sponges, and douching as options, along with a condom, which he referred to as “a covering used by the male called a baudruche, known as the French secret” (64). Condoms were then made of animal intestine, fish skin, or vulcanized rubber and were usually reused multiple times. Soule also put forward the idea of expelling semen through “stirring about immediately after [sexual] connection, or by dancing, or any vigorous exercise,” including “riding on horseback or over a rough road” (ibid.).

It is difficult to know how many of these books were published and sold, not to mention how many people used the advice or how effective it actually was. Douches likely just stung and irritated the vagina; withdrawal depended on a man’s ability to control the timing of his ejaculation in the heat of the sexual moment; and misuse of herbs such as pennyroyal and ergot of rye could cause hemorrhage or even death. Sponges and condoms depended on the ability of the user to find, purchase, or make them and to place and remove them properly. Abstinence was the only method with a 100 percent success rate but required willpower and deprived couples of physical affection. However, even information on moderately effective methods would be hard to find after the 1873 Comstock Act, which made illegal the publication, possession, and distribution of any material deemed obscene. Contraceptive information certainly fell under that heading, and Soule was arrested in 1878 and pled guilty to a charge of circulating obscene literature.

A grain head with brown growths on the seeds.
Ergot of rye, 2018
Courtesy Stiller Beobachter

In sum, contraceptive information, even if it was based on harmful or erroneous suppositions, was more available in the antebellum era than after the Comstock Act. However, challenging common beliefs about sex, childbearing, or women’s place in society led to punishment for promoters of that information throughout the nineteenth century. Historical knowledge about sex, contraception, and reproduction is not a straight line towards more and more information being available over time, but it rather ebbs and flows according to laws, social mores, and communication technologies.

For further reading, see Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca, 1994).

An informal portrait of Donna DruckerDr. Donna J. Drucker is the author of  The Classification of Sex: Alfred Kinsey and the Organization of Knowledge (Pittsburgh, 2014) and The Machines of Sex Research: Technology and the Politics of Identity, 1945–1985 (Springer, 2014). Her book Contraception: A Concise History is forthcoming from MIT Press in April 2020. She tweets from @histofsex.

4 comments

  1. Indeed! the history revolve the literature updated, its really fascinating how these things workout, thanks for sharing…

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