Contraception Through The Ages

When it comes to sex, humans have a long and well, creative, history of birth control—with some methods obviously more reliable than others.

Condoms are one of the oldest forms of birth control. Early versions date back to the 1600s and were made of animal skin. "They used a part of a sheep's stomach, or intestine, called the cecum. It's kind of a dead-end appendage that could be cleaned. It was the right size," said James Edmonson, Chief Curator at the Dittrick Medical History Center. 

The museum, tucked into the campus of Case Western Reserve University, is home to one of the most comprehensive collections of contraceptive devices and offers the public a window into the social and cultural fabric that surrounds human use of birth control throughout history.

The diaphragm, championed by Margaret Sanger, was an important development in the late 1800s and is still in use today.

“If you look in women's periodicals in the 1920s and 1930s, there were advertisements there for the use of Lysol for douching," said Edmonson. "Douching is using of a rubber-bulb syringe to rinse out your vagina after sex, the idea being that there might be some way to kill those pesky sperms that are still hanging around." 

Another method came on the scene in the 1920s. Originally called the “Rhythm Method,” this calendar-based technique is now known as “Fertility Awareness.”

“I think that probably the biggest turning point in contraception comes with the advent of the pill in the 1960s," said Edmonson. "It was a game-changer.”

The intrauterine device (IUD) rose to popularity in the 1970s but suffered a big setback when an early version called the Dalkon Shield led to serious infections. Modern versions are much safer, though the bad rap on this long-acting, implantable birth control method persists.

“People didn't know how these things worked, so they were constantly tweaking shapes and forms and material, and they didn't always get it right. We look back on the ones that were poor or bad and we find it kind of unbelievable, but it's there," said Edmonson. "Future birth control will probably go directions that we can't even conceive of today.”

See which methods have withstood the test of time; click here for a list of the current FDA-approved forms of birth control.

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