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Hilarious (and worrying) old-school contraceptive ads

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The approval of the pill in 1960 marked a revolutionary moment for women and sex, but before that contraception was an issue steeped in mystery and a string of dubious and exotically-named spermicides, "hygiene disinfectants" and "internal sheaths".

In 1885, for example, the first vaginal suppository was developed by an English pharmacist, using a combination of cocoa butter and quinine sulphate.

By the 1930s, diaphragms, also known as "womb veils" and "Capote Anglais" became a popular method of birth control - thanks in part to the work of Dutch doctor Aletta Jacobs and New York-based pioneer Margaret Sanger (who had previously been jailed on numerous occasions for her research on contraceptive methods).

Crepe rubber condoms were also used around this time, having graduated from animal intestine materials to the use of vulcanised rubber in 1843.

The marketing for these products was often hilarious and alarming, in equal measure.

Take Lysol, an antiseptic soap containing cresol that was widely available in the 1920s to the 1950s.

One of the most popular contraceptive methods during the Great Depression and beyond, the marketing of Lysol masqueraded under "feminine hygiene" - actually a euphemism for birth control, in a period before it was widely available (the pill was only available to women on the NHS in 1961 and birth control was illegal in the States until 1965 - and even then, only for married couples).

A Lysol ad from the 1920s

On the surface of it, these Lysol ads were hugely manipulative and played on shaming women about "feminine hygiene" issues, linking it to a lack of interest in husbands - and suggesting disinfectant douching as the solution.

"She was a perfect wife... except for one neglect," shouts one poster.

"Why does he avoid her embrace?" demands another.

"Rationed kisses? Maybe YOU are to blame," yet another Lysol advert cries.

The reason for all these men turning away? It's all down to "proper feminine hygiene" and "intimate neglect", apparently.

Lysol caused internal injuries in women

But cultural experts have pointed out these adverts weren't really about hygiene issues, rather they were a veiled reference to the spermicide effect of Lysol.

"These ads aren’t frightening women into thinking their genitals smell badly," says Lisa Wade of The Society Pages. "According to historian Andrea Tone, 'feminine hygiene' was a euphemism. Birth control was illegal in the U.S. until 1965 (for married couples) and 1972 (for single people). These Lysol ads are actually for contraception. The campaign made Lysol the best-selling method of contraception during the Great Depression."

'Intimate neglect' and 'feminine hygiene' was a euphemism for birth control

However, not only was the marketing of Lysol massively sexist, the product itself often caused internal tissue damage to women and its corrosive effect was linked to a number of vaginal burn injuries and even poisonings and deaths among women.

Despite being aggressively marketed as a safe and gentle method, it actually went onto be used as a germicide for cleaning toilet bowls.

Early models of female condoms, photo: Galton Institute/Wellcome Library

Thankfully, other forms of contraception were in the works around the same time, including this curious array of female condoms or "large internal sheaths for the vagina" (above), as illustrated by family planning pioneer Marie Stopes in her 1923 book Contraception.

"Sometimes a woman is aware of her husband’s contamination with venereal disease, and also his callous refusal to take trouble to prevent her infection," Stopes wisely notes. "Such an unfortunate wife should certainly use this protective sheath; it is the only feminine method offering anything approaching safety from venereal infection."

A 1940s wartime poster hailing the value of condoms

Of course, developments in the world of male condoms were fast gaining pace as well. In 1839, Charles Goodyear discovered a way of processing natural rubber and from this, latex was developed - but early condoms were thick and had seams in them.

Still, they were an improvement on the array of sheepskins, linen cloths and sausage skins previously used.

By the Second World War, soldiers were encouraged to take condoms on tour with them to prevent disease and pregnancy, as the advert above shows.

"I take one everywhere I take my penis!!" proclaims the less-than-subtle ad.

The Girl, the Body, and the Pill poster from 1967

By the 1960s, the use of the pill was in full swing, following trials in the 1950s and having been approved for use in the US in 1960 and the UK in 1961.

Movie-land was quick to cash in on the move, with the release of 1967's The Girl, the Body, and the Pill (above) and 1968 comedy Prudence and the Pill (below) exploring its increasing use in popular culture.

1968 film Prudence and the Pill

As we look back on the chequered history of dubious forms of contraception - and the shocking ads used to market them - we're more grateful than ever for the choice of safe and reliable birth control methods available today.

...Long may they continue!

Words: Anna Brech

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