With the readily available oral contraceptive pills, condoms and diaphragms these days, curiosity begs the question of what devices were used back in the day. Cultural practices all around the world demonstrated fairly interesting takes on ways to prevent pregnancy whether logical, painful or even life-threatening.

1. Crocodile dung

In ancient times, pessaries were considered the most effective form of contraception and various recipes for their production are known. Dating back to 1850 BC, Egyptian pessaries made up of crocodile dung, honey and sodium bicarbonate were commonly used as a form of barrier contraception. This mixture formed a thick paste which would melt at body temperature and was thought to form an impenetrable cervix covering.

The acidic property of the dung was considered to be useful as a spermicide, while the honey acted as an anti-bacterial agent guarding against infection from the dung. Various types of animal dung were used depending on location such as in India, elephant dung formed the base as it was easily attainable.

2. Syringe douching

In 1832, Dr Charles Knowlton greatly popularised ‘syringe douching’ as a contraceptive method. A mixture consisting of vinegar, zinc sulphite and liquid chloride generally filled the syringes.

The most popular female contraceptive method in the early 1900s was the household Lysol disinfectant. This douche was sold as a feminine hygiene product with advertisements including testimonials from European ‘doctors’. These testimonials were later found to be fabricated and the Lysol product proved to be ineffective as a spermicide.

In addition, many women suffered from inflammation, burns and irritation of their vagina and cervix. Several deaths were also reported with the use of this so-called contraception.

3. Lemons

In various cultural practices, lemons were considered to be highly beneficial as contraception. Half a lemon, with the pulp scooped out, was typically flattened to act as a diaphragm or positioned as a cervical cap and the acidic juices from it served as a potent spermicide.

This practice still seems to have carried on to recent times as some data cites its current use in parts of Eastern Europe. Its efficacy has not been investigated; nevertheless, cuts and abrasions can render this technique to be extremely painful and off-putting.

4. Tadpoles cooked in mercury

Innovation ran high in ancient China as well where they took birth control to a new level. For instance, in order to stay non-gravid, women were told to consume a cup full of tadpoles which had been cooked in mercury.

This dangerous practice would have to be done immediately after intercourse as it was believed to be the most effective time for the poison to act as a spermicide. Unfortunately, the mercury effects would have left many women with kidney and liver damage and also potentially rendered many women permanently sterile thereafter.

5. Wood, grass and linen

Pessaries came in various shapes and forms back in the early days. An example is a wooden cube with concave sides used as a barrier to stop sperm entering the cervix. The theory was that, if it fit perfectly, the concave side would fully cover the cervix opening and prove effective as a blockade. Despite being favoured by Victorians early on, it was depicted as ‘an instrument of torture’ in the 1930s.

In Africa, other barrier methods such as clumps of chopped grass or cloth were used. Besides that, Japanese prostitutes were noted to utilise balls of bamboo tissue paper, Slavic women used linen rags and Islamic and Greek women used wool as contraception.

A sea sponge wrapped in silk attached to a string was thought to be the most useful method until the development of the diaphragm in recent times.

6. Animal intestines

Condoms have been around for a long time with the earliest ones dating back to 1640. Initially, condoms were made of fish and animal intestines such as pig intestines soaked in milk. They mainly functioned to prevent sexually transmitted diseases as opposed to serving as a contraceptive method.

Giacomo Casanova was one of the first to use condoms to prevent pregnancy and is said to have favoured condoms made from lamb intestines.

Shockingly, early condoms were worn multiple times before they were disposed of. After each use, they would be washed, lathered with petroleum jelly and kept in wooden boxes for reuse. After animal intestines, Japanese men created ‘kabuto-gata’, which were hard sheaths made from animal horns or tortoise shells, before rubber condoms were widely marketed. MIMS

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