by ALICIA PUGLIONESI
Let's play “Name This Device”. You could order this device from a catalog in 1886. It was made of rubber. If you tried to ship it across state lines and the crate was inspected by a federal agent, you could wind up in jail. Also, it was a special device just for women.
Meet the contraceptive douche, the most popular birth control method of the nineteenth century. Before you judge the douche based on prior associations, please consider: it made a lot of sense at the time. If you're a lady, it's great to not get pregnant when you don't want to. Having a kid is a big deal and expensive and you can totally ruin the kid's life if you wind up being a crappy parent. Safe and effective birth control is more than great – we now consider it a basic human right. It's been just over fifty years since the Pill won FDA approval and it's hard to imagine life without it. But there was life without it. There was even life without condoms. It was a life of very imperfect control.
In many ways the pregnancy situation was pretty bleak until the 1930s; one in a hundred women died in childbirth while many more suffered severe complications from repeated pregnancies while the rest basically toiled in domestic servitude. So we know it was bad. But were women merely helpless victims of their own reproductive systems? Because the story that we tell about the invention of the Pill kind of makes it sound that way – like women just popped out babies uncontrollably until scientists came along and figured out hormones and handed us a miracle drug from on high. (Condoms, in that story, are too contingent on the guy's cooperation to count as a miracle contraceptive). Clearly the “before” part of the picture is missing some important details.
Abortion and contraception were standard in ancient Greece and Rome, in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance – they were never not around, but they were restricted to a special realm of women's knowledge that didn't make it into medical textbooks. Instead, that knowledge was passed on by word-of-mouth or recorded in recipe books that describe which plants to use and how to prepare them. Doctors weren't sure how to prevent pregnancy because they couldn't agree on how it worked – and even if they could figure it out, the Bible strongly suggested that agonizing childbirth was God's punishment for original sin and therefore it was not the doctor's job to get women off the hook. Contraception was a private female problem before it was a big business.
The big question when it comes to contraception is, did it work? At least, that's the first thing we'd want to know from a modern-day perspective. If my doctor told me to use nutmeg, I'd ask her, does it work? Is it 98% effective?
In 1800, there were not any controlled clinical trials and if you asked a doctor, you'd get a lecture about the need to be fruitful and multiply. Women relied on recommendations from other women, the advice of midwives, and recipe books handed down from mothers and grandmothers. They built a body of knowledge founded on cumulative experience. It doesn't look like science, but they knew what worked and what didn't. Unfortunately, nothing worked very well. But a lot of things kind of worked. Every day, women made decisions about how to not get pregnant; they tried a lot of different methods, they used multiple strategies at the same time, and they kept an ear to the ground in case something better came along.
Most of the things that directly shaped our modern way of life happened in the 19th century. For instance, the invention of childhood: people got the idea that children should learn and play instead of working in the fields, which meant that children became a drain on your wallet, which encouraged people to have fewer children. The pressure was on to control family size, and the wily entrepreneurs of the day quietly branched out into manufacturing contraceptive devices.
Thanks to the advent of mass production and Charles Goodyear's discovery of vulcanized rubber in the 1840s, the world of sex and contraception looked kind of like it does today. There were a lot of choices – a staggering, befuddling array of choices – and women had a very strong personal interest in finding out which choice was best for them. Old traditions of secret female knowledge were breaking down because it was the nineteenth century and life was speeding up, people were flocking to big, anonymous cities, it was hard to go out in the woods and gather herbs. Instead, you went to the store.
Stars of the new contraceptive age included French caps, French pessaries, French “male safes”, French womb veils, French female preventive powder, the French tickler, French female pills, “gentleman's protectors”, cundrums, etc. They sold under many different names, but trading on the reputation of the French was a popular advertising tactic. And it was a really crowded market, a veritable ocean of rubber goods; between 1840 and 1880, factory inventories and warehouses and catalogs exploded with the stuff.
Different contraceptive technologies had different cultural associations. Unfortunately, condoms and other barrier methods were associated with prostitution and venereal disease. Many doctors deemed them harmful to men's health. You had to buy them in erotica shops in sleazy back alleys on the wrong side of town. For very liberated, or very desperate women, this might be a risk worth taking, but many women didn't have access to the most effective forms of contraception because of powerful cultural taboos that they felt unable to defy.
The Victorian era (also known as most of the 19th century) is notorious for being quite conservative, i.e., sexually repressed in every way. People referred to arms and legs as “limbs” because saying “arm” or “leg” was too sexy. People fitted sleeves over the legs of their pianos because piano legs were too sexy.
How does that prudish Victorian stereotype fit with a booming market for contraception? We have plenty of Victorian condoms and porn to reassure us that nineteenth-century people were as horny as we are. They were just very meticulous (some would say hypocritical) about keeping it out of sight. A lot of people talked about sex, but another, more influential group of people fought to have sex censored and banished from polite society. By the 1870s that group got the upper hand, and if you cared about your reputation, you had to tow the official line that sex (except joyless sex within marriage for the purpose of procreation) was evil.
It got to the point where all “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious material” was legally banned in the United States. This really happened, in 1873, thanks to a crusade led by Anthony Comstock. Comstock can only be described as a troubled fanatic; he once bragged about driving the author of a banned sex education book to commit suicide. He personally confiscated and burned thousands of books and magazines. Naturally, birth control was also lewd and/or lascivious, so shipments of condoms, contraceptive pills and powders, and rubber devices were destroyed. This threw a wrench into the whirling gears of the contraceptive marketplace; suppliers and retailers were spooked, and customers were afraid to order suspicious devices in the mail. Anything with “French” in the name was probably going to get you in trouble.
This turn of events brings us back to the humble douche. Over 200 different variations on the vaginal douche were patented in the United States between 1830 and 1915. Douching was a booming business. And many, many people believed that douching prevented or terminated pregnancy. How did the contraceptive douche elude Comstock's fanatical censorship?
It was a case of the right device at the right time. They were not fans of sex, but the Victorians were obsessed with cleanliness, purity, and cold water. In Britain, public health crusader Edwin Chadwick dreamed of a massive sewer system that would literally flush out the filth of society with a wall of water – a new Biblical flood masterminded by engineers. The social body and the individual body were interchangeable. If a cavity could be flushed, it would be flushed. Charismatic health guru John Harvey Kellogg (the cereal guy) promoted enemas, douches, cold baths – anything to get at those hidden nooks and crevices where something unpleasant might be lurking. Hygienic douching, for men, women, and children of all ages, was what the experts endorsed.
Socially-acceptable hygienic douching led a secret (or not-so-secret) life as a forbidden contraceptive. Intuitively, it made sense to wash the semen out of there as soon as possible; fortunately, you could accomplish this with a normal, common household device. Husbands complained about their wives jumping out of bed to douche immediately after sex. Doctors complained about women trying to use contraception. One doctor in Kansas City bemoaned widespread contraceptive douching – all his patients were buying a “perfectly-adjusted syringe” along with their wedding gowns. “How this knowledge has become so widespread,” he writes, “we are unable to say.”
The Kansas doctor hit the nail on the head. He didn't know how women found out about douching because he didn't know how women found out anything about their bodies. The moral authorities were enforcing an information blackout. Meanwhile, women were picking up knowledge from each other, from experience, and by shopping around in the booming black market for contraceptive devices. In Victorian society contraception was immoral, but a woman was very likely to get sick or die from repeated pregnancies. Caught in a double-bind, they relied on their own knowledge and experience rather than taking the so-called experts at their word.
So was the contraceptive douche a scam? Or was it a technology of female resistance? There's no question that douching devices were marketed to desperate women and they didn't really work. We would use words like “charlatans” or “quacks” to describe the kind of people who sold mail-order douching powder. But women weren't necessarily dupes in this game. Even by the 1880s, not many people understood the exact mechanics of conception, and some doctors really did think that douching worked – that's why it made them so angry. Women knew that it didn't work all the time, and they experimented with different methods in the hope of finding something better.
The problem with the douche was that it stuck around long after its ineffectiveness became common medical knowledge. Advertisements for useless “feminine hygiene” products – Lysol in particular, you were supposed to put freaking Lysol up there – persisted into the 1970s, complete with fake doctor endorsements. This looks a lot more like what we'd call exploitation. The isolated suburban housewife, unplugged from intimate networks of female knowledge, reading ads in Woman's Day and buying unregulated crap from the pharmacy, was probably being scammed. The douche had become a harmful vestigial device.
Alicia Puglionesi is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Baltimore. This is her first appearance in these pages. She tumbls here.
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