The Long History of the Condom
Curious about the history of the condom?
Here's a bit of the obvious for you: men and women have been having sex for as long as there have been humans. Discounting any origin of the species theories involving extraterrestrials, that works out to around 250,000 years for Homo sapiens as a distinct species of primate.
For the better part of our quarter-million-year tenure we've understood a whole lot more about the mechanics of sex than we have about its physiology. Consider that it wasn't so very long ago when it was commonly believed that babies happened because the male of the species injected fully formed human beings - albeit teeny, tiny, little human beings - into the female. The dutiful female, being the product of Adam's rib and all that, served as a convenient receptacle and nurturer of the man's blessed gift.
Human tadpoles, if you will.
Though our understanding of the reproductive process has been decidedly limited, it wasn't that long after discovering the pleasures associated with the sex act that we began to notice certain other, more serious aspects that seemed to follow on the heels of the act - chiefly pregnancy and childbirth. After all, we are an intelligent species, or so we keep telling ourselves.
Because of our ability to put one and one together, we eventually began to grasp the risks that went along with having sex in the midst of uncertain times, like famine or drought. Another one of those concepts that are inherent, like gravity. You don't need to know anything about Isaac Newton to know it's not a good idea to stand beneath a heavy object suspended in mid-air.
It probably wasn't very long after our ancestors developed a more fully-formed link between sex and procreation that some bright individual (more likely, several of them in several different places - perhaps a woman, or women, perhaps?) fashioned a crude sheath as a barrier to keep those pesky tadpole humans from making themselves at home inside the woman.
And so, more or less the condom was born.
Just as we have been unable to pin down the appearance of the condom to a specific time, place, or inventor, so too with the name we've affixed to it. The best we've been able to do so far is assume it comes from the Latin condos, meaning receptacle.
Etymologist William E. Kruck attempted to track down the origins of the word in his 1983 monogram, Looking for Dr. Condom. After encountering one dead end after another, he concluded, "As for the word 'condom,' I need state only that its origin remains completely unknown, and there ends this search for an etymology."
"Condom" is just the official name for this ancient birth control device. It has many other names that are far less formal. (See discussion on names for condoms here.)
Early versions of the condom were used primarily for birth control, and were made of linen, or leather, or other naturally, soft, malleable materials.
The Japanese are said to have had a choice of two types, one made of thin leather, the other made of tortoise shell or horn. Yikes! The urge to have sex must have been truly overwhelming to compel a man to attach such a device to one of the most sensitive parts of his anatomy. One can only marvel at such determination.
It might help to explain the sullen and angry expressions depicted on the faces of Samurai warriors in Japanese art.
Images of sheaths have been found among the prehistoric drawings on cave walls in southwest France. Farther to the east in Egypt, it is unknown if the wearer depicted in the earliest known image - believed to date from around 1,000 B.C. - is planning to engage in everyday, normal, carnal relations, or something of a more ritualistic nature.
Of the birth control options available in the land of the Pharaoh, one would expect the sheath/condom to be more popular than another, reportedly, popular method involving the use of crocodile dung. Imagine being the first in history to be inspired to prepare for a heavy date (or nuptial celebration) with your own personal supply of crocodile poo. Once again, the determination to employ such measures is awe-inspiring.
In any event, the gathering of materials for a simple sheath would seem to be less risky than strolling along the riverbank on a dung-hunting expedition.
Citizens of ancient Rome used condoms made from goat bladders for birth control. Devices made from goat and sheep intestines would later be employed as a means of combating sexually transmitted diseases, like syphilis. The Chinese used oiled, silk paper as a preventative. After all, if it's strong enough for housing, right?
The use of the condom for disease prevention increased in the 16th and 17th centuries following the voyages of discovery and plunder to the New World. Columbus, and those who followed in his wake, returned to Spain with gold and other souvenirs. Some, like chocolate, were highly prized. Others - the unintended consequences of crewmembers' adventures with native peoples they didn't kill - were not as well appreciated. It was euphemistically dubbed, "the present from the New World," or "the Aborigines' Revenge."
Not surprisingly, the unwitting inhabitants of the Old World soon found themselves immersed in an epidemic of syphilis.
Enter Gabrielle Fallopio, an Italian physician frequently referred to by his Latin name, Fallopius. He is considered one of the most important anatomists of the 16th century. Despite the brevity of his life (1523-1562), he is responsible for many important advances in medical science.
Fallopius focused much of his study on the anatomy of the head, but also delved into the reproductive systems of both men and women. The Fallopian tube, connecting the ovary to the uterus, is named for him.
Because of his efforts to understand human reproductive anatomy, and for works such as his treatise on syphilis, Fallopius was recognized as an authority on sex and sexuality in his lifetime. He recommended the use of condoms for disease prevention, and only later as an effective method of birth control.
By the 1700s, condoms made from animal intestines were widely used. They were also expensive, and frequently reused, which may have been the basis for a popular saying of the time, which referred to the condom as "an armour against pleasure, and a cobweb against infection."
The word condom as a name for the sheath is believed to have originated around this time as well. Some attribute the word to a Dr. Condom or Conton, who reportedly kept randy King Charles II of England supplied with sheaths made from animal tissue to reduce the risk of infection during his many encounters with prostitutes. They also came in handy as a way to control the proliferation of royal bastards.
Others refer to a Dr. Condon or Colonel Cundum. Then there is condam, quandam, and even the Italian guantone from guanto, meaning 'glove.' All of these are interesting, and maybe even close ... but no cigar. We seem to be stuck with the Latin derivative.
The next major advance in the evolution of the condom took place in 1839 when Charles Goodyear developed a process for vulcanizing rubber. He received a patent in 1844.