What Passed for Birth Control in the Victorian Era

Images courtesy Little, Brown.

The Victorian era: So attractive in BBC costume dramas, so wildly unappealing upon closer acquaintance.

In her new book Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners, recently published by Little, Brown, author—and Jezebel contributor—Therese Oneill offers an educational tour for the prospective time traveler. Often drawing on contemporary etiquette manuals, rulebooks, and scientific treatises that read a century and a half later as part hilarious, part horrifying, Oneill hits the highlights of everyday life, covering everything from feminine hygiene to clothing to dieting. Or maybe we should say the lowlights. In this excerpt, she tackles that offense against God: birth control.


Of course these men were not fools. They understood there were cases where it was not advisable to have more children. There was one method that even the most stalwart internal-ejaculation supporter could endorse, and that was temperance. If you want no more children, have no more sexual intercourse. We are, after all, men, not animals.


Well, technically men, humans, are animals. Actually more than technically. As I mentioned, the abstinence option was not popular or successful. Even when paired with the healthful suggestion that couples sleep in separate beds to avoid temptation (a very expensive option, beyond most families’ financial means).


Medical men like Jefferis and Nichols who did not want to anger God or the United States government (publishing information about birth control was illegal for much of the nineteenth century, as we shall see) often offered timetables of when a woman was most fertile, least fertile, and even temporarily “sterile.”

“Another Provision of Nature.—For a certain period between her monthly illness, every woman is sterile. Conception may be avoided by refraining from coition except for this particular num- ber of days, and there will be no evasion of normal Intercourse, no resort to disgusting practices, and nothing degrading.”


This generous provision of Nature often proved not generous enough, which is why even today, reference to the rhythm method is usually followed with a baby-laden punch line.

Women have been trying to block sperm from egg since the moment they suspected what the meeting of the two resulted in. The methods and ingredients have varied over the centuries and around the globe, but the basics have been the same. Sperm: put up a barrier, wash it out, or try to kill it before it reaches its prize. Dr. James Ashton, in his remarkably informative and detailed The Book of Nature, found no sin nor ethical dilemma in a married couple trying to limit family size. Here are a few methods he recommends, along with one suggestion from fellow doctor H. P. Monroe.

Now, this Sears & Roebuck catalogue has no idea what you’re going to want to DO with a cup-shaped ladies sponge with a netting and string...they simply sell them. I think it’s assumed they’re used in craft projects.

Sponge and spermicide

“Procure a fine sponge at a drug-store, and cut off a piece of it about the size of a walnut; then make a fine silk string by twisting together some threads of sewing silk; tie one end of the string to the piece of sponge; wet the sponge in a weak solution of sulphate of iron, or of any of the solutions before mentioned as fatal to the animalculae of the Semen. Before connection, insert the piece of sponge far up into your person. You can place it entirely out of the way by the use of a smooth stick of the proper size and shape. The string will hang out, but will be no obstacle. After the act is over, you withdraw the sponge.”



“The judicious use of an ordinary female syringe, with cold water alone, or a weak solution of white vitriol or other stringent in cold water, immediately after coition, will in most cases prevent conception. By the use of this article a female may inject as much fluid as she pleases, through an elastic tube, quite as far up into her person as is necessary. The mixture should be prepared beforehand, and, with the syringe, kept by her bed-side, as success often depends upon promptness in using it.”


Homemade spermicide recipes

One of many syringes (douche bags with nozzles) available for general health purposes. Nothing else. Sears & Roebuck support clean healthy rectums and vaginal canals. NOTHING ELSE.

The recipes in Ashton’s book contained fairly innocuous ingredients: alum, zinc, iron, rainwater. They also…probably didn’t work great. Especially in the case of douching. Besides the greased-lightning movement of sperm, the aroused tissue of the vaginal wall stretches out, then wrinkles and folds back up again when arousal has passed, leaving infinite crannies for sperm to sequester itself in, where even a very thorough flushing cannot reach. This is probably one of the reasons quickness is advised. Sometimes, as in the recipe below, medical men suggest putting the sperm killer in place before it is needed.

Dr. H. P. Monroe shares his remedy in an 1897 volume of the periodical The Medical World:

“I make a vaginal suppository of cocoa butter, into which I incorporate from 6 to 10 per cent, of boracic acid and the same amount of tannic acid. These suppositories should weigh from y2 dram to one dram each. From three to five minutes before con- gress one of these suppositories is introduced into the vagina, and pushed well up against the cervix. The cocoa butter having melted and set the boracic and tannic acids free, they act as an effectual germicide, thus destroying the spermatozoa.”


Antiseptic vaginal suppositories. Just for cleanliness. Kills...germs. And possibly things that rhyme with “germ.”

Scrotum bondage (don’t…don’t do this one)

“Some men tie up the scrotum to prevent a discharge of Se- men, and thus hope to avoid impregnating the female; but this method is exceedingly hurtful, as it forces the discharge into the bladder, from whence it passes off with the urine. Such a practice will in a short time so derange the procreative organs as to send all the Semen into the bladder as fast as it generates, and the effect on health will be a wasting away of vitality in the same manner as if the patient constantly practiced self-pollution.”


I don’t know how much of this information from Ashton beyond the words “exceedingly hurtful” is accurate, but really, that first part is probably all that need be said.


But the most effective prevention The Book of Nature recommends is, of course, the one with the greatest history of causing God to slay its practitioners. Ashton does not believe withdrawal should be equated with onanism. “This plan injures neither party,” he writes, “nor does it really diminish the pleasurable sensations of connection.” And “if properly performed, the act of coition is as pleasurable, as healthy and as complete as it can be when the Semen is fully injected.” He is even prepared to address questions of cleanliness so as not to disgust ladies of refinement. (Again, there seems to be some misunderstanding that once a woman is given the gift of semen, even internally, it vaporizes into pure light and she does not need to deal with it again. We know this not to be the case, darling, but let us not disabuse these gentlemen of their pleasant illusion.)

“The cleanliness of this practice is also a great desideratum, as females of any degree of refinement can understand. I would then suggest to married people the following rule: Always carry to bed a clean napkin, which is to be kept in the hand of the male during the nuptial act. It will then be a very easy matter to place this napkin in a proper position to receive the Semen on with- drawal, at the instant it would otherwise be injected into the body of the female. If you do it at the proper moment, no pleasure is lost to either party; and habit will soon make you expert in this respect.”


If only it were as easy as that, good sir. But you have neglected to satisfactorily account for the presence of monster sperm and spasmodic vagina disease caused by lack of semen supplements, or to give us the confidence that we will not be slain, as precedent suggests we might.

Objects of No-sire

Other medical texts list devices to use against pregnancy: the condom, of course, which was just making its transformation from animal-skin sheath to horrid thick rubber male-member mackinaw. It was unpopular, for it slipped, broke, diminished sensation, and gave the female no control over the situation.


One doctor, F. F. Jackson, writing to The Medical World (volume 15, 1897), lists other devices he has encountered in his practice, and his reasons for dismissing them.

“The use of the hood, or ‘French Pessaire’ [cervical cap], for the female, requires too much skill in its adjustment, so that many times it fails to accomplish its purpose. The aluminum button, to be placed in the uterus, is of more recent origin. The objection to this is it can only be used when the uterus is perfectly free from all discharge [this likely refers to an early form of the IUD].”


There was another reason for not using these objects in attempts to thwart conception: simply put, because they were in fact objects, ones that needed to be procured, sent for, mailed. Clear into the twentieth century, it was illegal to mail contraceptives, or information about contraceptives, in America. How The Medical World, though not intended for the public, even managed its distribution is a mystery to me.

Wishbone style pessary. Used both for thumbtacking prolapses back into place and (potentially) birth control.

This information wasn’t always illegal. The Book of Nature, which has given us such detailed information, was published and distributed legally in 1861. Twelve years later, that would have been impossible. Why? Because of one man. Hailed by some as the last great Puritan Christian of America, considered by most others an arrogant, draconian, pharisaical busybody who believed he had a right to nestle himself between the bedsheets of every couple in the country. Anthony Comstock.

UNMENTIONABLE by Therese Oneill. Copyright © 2016 by Therese Oneill. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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