The history (and future) of the condom in 600 words or less

Condoms! We’ve all seen them – in health class, in the act, or in the sexual health aisle in Boots – between six to nine billion are sold every year, but do you know the history of them?

A condom by any other name… The name, ‘condom’ could derive from Condom, France where the first lambskin condom are said to have originated among farmers using sheep guts for sexual health. Another sector of historians believe ‘condom’ comes from Dr Condom, the first physician to give Charles II an oiled sheep intestine to use for a condom. ‘Condom’ also could be a derivative of the Latin word condus which simply means ‘vessel’.

Perhaps the earliest indication of condoms have been seen in cave paintings dating back to 200 C.E. The idea of the female condom was created 2000 years ago in ancient Greece in response to the legendary curse put on King Minos by his wife which meant he ejaculated snakes and scorpions into his mistresses.

The first documented use of a condom in Europe was as early as 1564, by the anatomist Gabrielle Fallopia. In the 16th century the humble condom was used primarily to prevent STDs. Syphilis had raged through Europe for over 300 years and condoms provided a much-needed preventative measure.

Elsewhere, in Japan and China, condoms were in use before the 15th century. They were made out of linen or animal intestine, just like 18th century Europe, they were one size fits all and had to be dipped in water before use.

However, the discovery of the sperm cell in the 17th century created some new ethical issues. The newfound reproductive implications caused outrage among the church against the use of any prophylactic. Thus, through a very effective social campaign, by the 18th century condoms were no longer a symbol of sexual health but represented promiscuity for the medical field.

With the HIV epidemic, condoms were further wrongly associated with notions of promiscuity and ‘improper’ sexual habits. Recently, however the Catholic church has opened up to the practicalities and enormous benefits of condoms. In 2010, Reverend Federico Lombardi, speaking on behalf of Pope Benedict, said that condoms are ‘the first step of responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk to the life of the person with whom there are relations … whether it’s a man, woman, or a transexual.’

The invention of the latex condom and the war had a big effect on the rise of the condom from the 1910s to the 1950s. In 1912 the latex condom was invented, making the condom cheap, disposable and available to a much wider section of society. However, following World War 1, France banned the use of condoms following fears about falling birth rates. But ultimately by 1939, latex condoms were mass produced and distributed to the troops.

More recently, NATSAL (the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles) conducted three surveys on the attitudes towards condoms in 1990, 2000 and 2010. It turned out condoms are becoming more popular as the decades go by, particularly among men with new partners.

Looking to the future, in 2013 Bill and Melinda Gates offered $100,000 for the next generation of condom designs. Ideas submitted to the competition included: the elastic condom, the self tightening condom, the mucous condom, the shape memory condom, the wrapping condom and,  the ‘rapidom’, ‘a condom with applicators attached make putting it on possible with a single motion’.

So there you go! A whistle stop tour of the history of the condom, hope you’ve enjoyed the ride.

Featured Image by Deon Black on Unsplash

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