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Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Contraception: Civil War Style

In the decades before the Civil War, there was no organized movement to advocate or control contraception. Freethinking printers and publishers began spreading the word about reproductive choices. Fruits of Philosophy by Charles Knowlton was copyrighted in 1831 and originally printed anonymously. The advanced scientific writing on women's anatomy and reproduction was an innovative work. His response to moralists was that "Mankind will not abstain." In December 1832, Knowlton was arrested for obscenity.

Fruits of Philosophy went through many editions and by the 1850s was found in nearly every section of the country. Although some of the science was incorrect by today's knowledge, Knowlton was a visionary, predicting overpopulation problems and suggesting that women take control of their reproductive health.

Until Margaret Sanger coined the words "birth control" in 1914, there was no standard term for family planning. In the nineteenth century, metaphors such as "limitation of offspring," "preventatives," and "regulators" were used. Devices and methods had an equal number of euphemisms, including "womb veils," "wife's protector," and "female preventatives."

Coitus interruptus or "withdrawal" was commonly used in Victorian America. In 1831, Robert Dale Owen published Moral Physiology. He publicized the technique with his pamphlet, writing candidly and without many of the euphemisms characteristic of the era. Douching was another common method, both as a contraceptive and as an abortion technique. By mid-century, "prevention powders" and expensive bottles of "toilet vinegars" were sold commercially.

In the 1840s, the rhythm method was introduced. Unfortunately for many women, the most common advised time of coitus in the 1850s through the 1870s was right at the time when they were most likely to conceive. In 1839, Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization of rubber which gave rise to the manufacture of condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes, diaphragms, and cervical caps. Before this time, condoms were made from animal membranes and had been associated with the stigma of being a preventative for syphilis in the brothels. Due to improved technology and lower costs, rubber condoms came into widespread use during the 1850s.

Womb veils were cervical caps or diaphragms. By the 1860s, these contraceptive pessaries were advertised under a variety of names, including "French shields" and "womb guards." Secrecy and non-interference with sexual pleasure were promoted with their use. Why secrecy? Not all men were reliable with coitus interruptus or in wearing a condom. As well as that, some men were unsympathetic to a woman having reproductive control.

Contraceptive sponges were mentioned in the advice literature as early as the late 1700s. Opinions varied as to a sponge's reliability, but they became commercially available by the mid-nineteenth century. Druggists sold wide varieties or a woman could buy a sponge of the correct size and attach a silk thread to make her own.

As in modern times, abortion was a controversial subject during the nineteenth century. While the exact abortion rate is impossible to calculate, historians agree that the number escalated from one abortion in every twenty-five or thirty live births to one for every five or six births in the 1850s and 1860s. The law as to when a fetus became a full-fledged person has been argued over for centuries. Antebellum Americans adopted the medieval common law from Thomas Aquinas that the soul entered the fetus at the time of quickening or with the first movements.

Originally, lawmakers believed that abortion was mainly utilized by unmarried women to avoid disgrace. But by the late 1830s and early 1840s, abortifacients became a commercial business. "Regulators" or "preventative powders" came in the form of pills or fluid extracts for a woman to induce an abortion in the privacy of her home. Along with drugs, abortion instruments were readily available through mail order and drug stores. "Female physicians" cropped up in urban areas with Madame Restell among the most famous, running a mail-order business and abortion service from the 1830s through the 1870s.

During the Civil War, women were forced into many nontraditional roles. Yet little notice has been given to reproductive control during the era. Contraceptive knowledge became public before the war, and with a growing awareness of science and choice, demand came about for better methods that paved the way for modern birth control.


Brodie, Janet Farrell,Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca:Cornell University Press, 1994.

Grossberg, Michael, Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Knowlton, Charles, Fruits of Philosophy: An Essay on the Population Question, 3rd new ed., with notes. 1878 reprint ed. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1972.

Tone, Andrea, ed., Controlling Reproduction: An American History. Wilmington,Delaware: SR Books, 1997.

Tone, Andrea, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America. New York:Hill and Wang, 2001.

Kim Murphy

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