What did 19th century prostitutes use for birth control?
November 21, 2008 2:20 PM   Subscribe

What sort of birth control did old-timey prostitutes use?

I'm reading Gore Vidal's "Lincoln" right now, and, like all of his "Empire" series, the narrators tend to be avid brothel-goers. How did that work? Was a john expected to withdraw? Did they use some sort of condom? Were the prostitutes pregnant all the time? Gore doesn't really go into detail.
posted by bonecrusher to Human Relations (29 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Condoms have been around for a long time.
posted by kimdog at 2:30 PM on November 21, 2008

Contraception: Civil War Style should answer some questions. Not about brothels but speaks to what was available.
Unique research conducted by Clelia Duel Mosher in the late-nineteenth century has remarkably survived to modern times. Dr. Mosher, a researcher at Stanford University, surveyed forty-seven married women about health issues, and among the topics examined were sexual practices and birth control.(13) By no means is the study an exhaustive, scientific one. All of the women were from the North and well-educated, clearly biasing the sample selection, but the study lends an extraordinary rare glimpse inside Victorian life.

For the purpose of keeping the study directly related to the Civil War, I have narrowed the field of forty-seven women to the seventeen who were born before the war. Of these, five women would have been mature and one a teenager by the outbreak in 1861. All but one woman admitted to resorting to the use of some sort of birth control with the most popular methods being condoms, withdrawal, the rhythm method, and douching. Five women, married from nine months to fifteen years, had no children with only one admitting to taking no precautions. The remaining women had from one to eight children. Four of these stated they had children by choice, five by accident, two a combination, and one woman with eight children left it all to chance.

During the Civil War, women were forced into many nontraditional roles. Yet little notice, except for technological advances, 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 to modern birth control.
posted by jessamyn at 2:41 PM on November 21, 2008

Birth control history.

Pertinent bits:

Charles Goodyear patents vulcanization of rubber. Soon, rubber condoms are mass produced. Unlike modern condoms -- made to be used once and thrown away -- early condoms were washed, anointed with petroleum jelly, and put away in special wooden boxes for later reuse. British playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw called the rubber condom the "greatest invention of the nineteenth century."

The U.S. contraceptive industry flourishes. In addition to condoms (immediately known as "rubbers"), there's widespread sale and use of intrauterine devices or IUDs, douching syringes, vaginal sponges, diaphragms and cervical caps (then called "womb veils"), and "male caps" that covered only the tip of the penis.

posted by Stewriffic at 2:42 PM on November 21, 2008

I've always heard that vinegar-soaked sponges were popular, but pessiaries were common according to this.
posted by arnicae at 2:42 PM on November 21, 2008

Treated sheep guts. Seriously. There's archaeological evidence that people have been using such devices for almost four centuries.

Assuming they used anything. "Your mother was a whore" was a significantly more plausible insult before the invention of the latex condom and the pill.
posted by valkyryn at 2:43 PM on November 21, 2008

An 1894 birth control device on History Detectives
posted by milkrate at 2:52 PM on November 21, 2008

There is some evidence that Queen Ann's Lace seeds were used as a contraceptive for centuries. The link goes to some dubious testimonials but for my personal experience I knew a gal (not a GF so no direct experience) who absolutely swore by them - and by all accounts she had a lot of chances to test it out. Just sayin'.
posted by elendil71 at 3:08 PM on November 21, 2008

If you're ever in the Cleveland area, my alma mater has the largest contraceptive collection in the world.
posted by spamguy at 3:19 PM on November 21, 2008

Treated sheep guts. Seriously.

No big suprise, you can still buy them today.
posted by randomstriker at 3:24 PM on November 21, 2008

Abortion in the Ancient and Premodern World
Planned Parenthood: A History of Birth Control Methods

From other Googling, looks like there plenty of medicinal compounds used - from concoctions of Chinese herbs to mercury and arsenic.

My guess is that prostitutes controlled fertility the same ways that other women did, though they probably had more sophisticated methods and information some of the time. The existence of enormous numbers of 'bastard' children and bastardy laws indicates that the methods did not approach 100% effectiveness.
posted by Miko at 3:41 PM on November 21, 2008

According to Alan Moore's notes for his own From Hell:

'The trick by which a prostitute would hold the penis between her thighs to simulate intercourse without penetration was allegedly a common one during the period (and unfortunately recorded in a source that I am presently unable to trace) stated that during twenty years working as a prostitute in the East End of London, she had only been penetrated twice the rest of the time fobbing the customer with the trick...'
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:50 PM on November 21, 2008

I am sure in one of the exhaustive biographies of Jack the Ripper I have read it mentioned the common use of anal sex in Victorian London prostitution in addition to the thigh rubbing fearfulsymmetry mentions. In addition to contraception, there was the use of abortion as well.
posted by saucysault at 5:09 PM on November 21, 2008

John Riddle's Eve's Herbs has a lot of info on the historical use of herbs as contraceptives and abortifacents. Not sure how much was retained into the 19th century, but one suspects there must've been some oral lore about such things.
posted by greatgefilte at 5:42 PM on November 21, 2008

That's amazing, I was just reading Gore Vidal's Burr and had the same thought about condoms! Dude loves prostitutes.
posted by Kirklander at 7:36 PM on November 21, 2008

Copper works (adjusts the acidity and creates an inhospitable clime) - hell, that is what many people, self included, still use
posted by Acer_saccharum at 7:37 PM on November 21, 2008

I remember in my OB's office some posters of really awful looking metal devices. They looked like flowers with spikes coming out of them. I asked what they were, and he said they were IUD's. He said his grandmother probably used them. He'd be in his 60's now. More info here and here.
posted by lysdexic at 8:03 PM on November 21, 2008

I've heard that pennies were used as makeshift cervical caps by some women.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:55 PM on November 21, 2008

A bit earlier, but fascinating: silphium was a plant found in ancient Rome which was supposedly such a good oral contraceptive that it was harvested into extinction. It was related to asafoetida and, as elendil71 mentioned, Queen Anne's Lace:

"Silphium cannot be tested but experiments using crude extracts of asafoetida in rats, showed that it inhibited implantation of fertilized ova at rates up to 50 percent. Extracts of asafoetida's close relatives were nearly 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy when given within three days of mating. In 1986 it was shown that compounds in Queen Anne's Lace blocked the production of progesterone, necessary for preparation of the uterus for a fertilized ovum. Women in rural North Carolina and Rajasthan, India both use the seeds to prevent pregnancy. "
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:13 PM on November 21, 2008

In A Walk on the Wild Side Nelson Algren writes of prostitutes upending a bottle of Coca-Cola as a post-coital spermicide, half-empty Cokes sitting on window ledges of the New Orleans brothel, ready for use, the sooner the better. Would this actually work?
posted by Rash at 10:36 PM on November 21, 2008

Not sure of the veracity of the Coca-Cola spermicide phenomenon, but I shudder to think of the terrible yeast infections ladies would be setting themselves up for from washing internally with all that sugar. Errrrgggg.
posted by anonnymoose at 12:11 AM on November 22, 2008

Rash: Snopes debunks the spermicial coke myth.

Another effective contraceptive I am sure any prostitute dealt with are STD's as well as physical damage from childhood sexual abuse.
posted by saucysault at 12:53 AM on November 22, 2008

I understand that infanticide of unwanted children was shockingly common in ye olde times, but I'm damned if I can find a decent link illustrating my point.
posted by tiny crocodile at 5:29 AM on November 22, 2008

common use of anal sex in Victorian London prostitution

That reminded me of a Johnathan Meades documentary that implied it was a relativity common form of contraception in all levels of society at the time - reflected by the fashion for the bustle.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:36 AM on November 22, 2008

Sugar (prostitute and main character) in Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White used a sort of douche the ingredients of which I can't remember, though it sounded just nasty.

Claire in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series used sponges soaked in tansy oil.
posted by orange swan at 8:54 AM on November 22, 2008

For truly old-timey sex, there's at least some evidence that 14th century London prostitutes typically had intercrural (between the legs) or anal sex. Not only is it a convenient form of birth control, it also explains how the man caught having sex with transvestite prostitute John "Eleanor" Rykener could have no clue that she was a dude, even though they were caught in the middle of the act.
posted by Casuistry at 9:51 AM on November 22, 2008

I would second The Crimson Petal and the White. It's a good read, and the historical aspects are quite interesting. Quite a large book, which might be a good or bad thing depending on what you like.
posted by Windigo at 11:05 AM on November 22, 2008

Copper works
I remember reading a Victorian-era novel where one "working woman" showed a younger girl her birth control secret - "golden circles" was how the young girl described them. I never knew what she meant, but now I'm betting it had something to do with copper.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:13 AM on November 22, 2008

Apparently once upon a time in Japan, the men used to squat briefly in very hot water to cripple the little swimmers.
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 4:27 AM on November 23, 2008

I understand that infanticide of unwanted children was shockingly common in ye olde times, but I'm damned if I can find a decent link illustrating my point.
posted by tiny crocodile at 8:29 AM on November 22 [+] [!]

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes about this in her fascinating book Mother Nature. During the Victorian era, infanticide was accomplished indirectly through abandoning infants at foundling hospitals or orphanages. I don't have the book in front of me right now to quote a statistic, but the death rate for the abandoned infants was astronomical -- well over 50%.
posted by footnote at 10:57 AM on November 23, 2008

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