Pessaries to French letters: Contraceptives earlier than the capsule

On December 4, 1961, birth control pills were first introduced by the NHS in the United Kingdom. While it was a relatively minor moment in Parliament, it should have a tremendous impact on millions of women, affecting everything from their sex lives and families to their economic freedoms. Sixty years later, the pill is still at the top of the list of things that have influenced women’s lives the most, and as of 2019, 151 million women were taking the pill worldwide.

Despite the importance of this moment, the contraceptive pill was originally only introduced to a very limited number of women according to medical judgment and, contrary to popular belief, many forms of contraception were already widespread. The more explicit state support was significant here than decades before the government had been discussing the monitoring of advertising and the promotion of contraceptives.

In this blog, I will focus on the contraceptives available and the government’s response, rather than the wider birth control and family planning centers.

Birth Control Publication Confiscated as Indecent Publications by the Home Office, 1931-1934. Catalog number: HO 45/15753

Syringes, enemas, swirling sprays, and showers

To really understand the effects of the pill, it is necessary to look at life before its existence. Before the advent of the pill, there were already many different methods of contraception: from French letters or rubber covers (condoms, used by men) to pessaries, contraceptive sponges and showers (used by women). The withdrawal method also continued to be a popular preventive measure. Birth control was the common term for contraceptives in the 20th century, but other, less explicit terms were often used in advertisements, such as “surgical devices”, “feminine remedies”, and “herbalism” for item sellers. Suppliers would target individuals through commercial catalogs sent through mailboxes, often to unsuspecting individuals. Such services also offered a more discreet and reputable way of procuring contraceptives for all walks of life.

Contraception leaflet seized as indecent by the Ministry of the Interior, 1931-1934. Catalog number: HO 45/15753

Government records show police control and attempted control of these ads and catalogs, leaving us with an abundance of interesting items that have been seized by the authorities and are sometimes on our records. In order to find contraceptives from the 19th and early 20th centuries in our collections, terms such as “obscene”, “abortionists” and “indecent publications” must be used as search terms that correspond to the language of the time. The use of language such as abortion drugs in relation to preventive contraception reflects contemporary attitudes. Contraception was often viewed as more controversial than abortion itself, as it signaled the intention of having sex for the sake of sex itself, not for reproductive sake.

The fact that such publications were reported by at least some individuals and societies to the police or the Ministry of the Interior tells us something about attitudes towards contraception at the time and how divisive they could be. However, the nature of government archives also means that we mostly capture the disputed cases; For many people, contraceptives were part of everyday life. As this quote from a woman who was married in the 1940s shows:

“It was years before the pill and it was just common for the man to take precautions … you see, in the 1940s it was very different … Everything was left to the men.”

Hilda, quoted in Simon Szreter, Kate Fisher, ‘Sex Before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963’. Cambridge, 2010. p.253.

Kate Fisher has argued that birth control was more of a male domain during this period, with women preferring that men were mainly concerned with contraception.

Tooley and Haigh chemists with contraceptive machine on exterior wall, Birmingham, 1934-1937. Catalog number: HO 45/17040

Automated rubber slot machines

In the 1920s, single-use rubber condoms were developed, although various other methods of contraception were also used. In the 1920s and 1930s, automatic slot machines that sold rubber sleeves appeared across the country. Much like leaflets placed in mailboxes, they eliminated the embarrassment of face-to-face interaction.

Although there did not appear to be many, they received considerable attention. The Home Office received many complaints from organizations as diverse as the Mothers’ Association to the Methodist Church. One person wrote a letter complaining about the “harmful moral effects” of this “public evil” while a school teacher claimed wholeheartedly approving of contraception but was concerned about the effects of such automated condom machines on teenagers. Images in our collections show chemists who had complained about contraceptive machines on their shop fronts, such as in Birmingham and Leeds in the 1930s.

During the 20th century, birth rates had steadily declined, and contraceptive methods were increasingly used in the first half of the 20th century. Women began to see conception as more of a shared responsibility. Contraceptives became increasingly visible in society; present on the street, in these slot machines and shop displays; seen in national press debates about family planning clinics; and in the truest sense of the word in people’s homes.

How did the birth control pill develop out of this context? The second part of this blog will examine just that.

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