The elastic properties of rubber - known to the native peoples of the Americas as Caoutchouc, from the word cahuchu, or "weeping wood," an appropriately picturesque description - have been known for centuries. The pre-Columbian peoples of Central and South America developed a whole range of uses for rubber for such things as containers and balls. Likewise, Europeans found it useful.
The Portuguese used containers made of rubber to transport wine, something that would probably cause a wine enthusiast today to blanch. Joseph Priestly reportedly used it to create the first eraser in the late 18th century. In 1823, Charles Macintosh developed its use for waterproofing clothing, hence, the waterproof overcoat known as the Macintosh.
While the uses for rubber were many, it had limitations, particularly in the area of durability. It tended to deteriorate rather quickly and became brittle in winter temperatures, a common occurrence in Europe.
Goodyear improved rubber's durability by removing the sulphur and heating it - vulcanization.
The Age of Victorian Morals
The first advertisement for a condom in the U.S. was for an ad for "Dr. Power's French Preventatives" published in The New York Times in 1861. It wasn't long before the defenders of the Victorian moral code struck back. Leading the charge was Anthony Comstock.
Comstock was to the mid-19th century what the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association is to us today with one big difference. Wildmon is widely perceived to be far out on the edge of the lunatic fringe for, amongst other things, accusing Mighty Mouse (the animated, cartoon character) of snorting cocaine.
Actually, the poor little mouse was lovesick. The powder he snorted was the crumbled residue of a dried flower picked by his ladylove that he had been carrying around in his pocket. Strange behavior perhaps, but hardly illegal.
On the other hand, Comstock - who founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an organization dedicated to supervising the morality of the public - achieved the type of success in promoting his moral agenda in ways that Wildmon can only dream of.
On March 3, 1873, the Comstock Act became the law of the land. The law made it illegal to use the mails to send "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" materials; porn, the bread and butter of today's internet. The law also targeted the advertising and sale of contraceptives and any materials that described or promoted their use.
The courts finally ruled portions of the law pertaining to contraceptives unconstitutional in 1936, but until then a lot of damage was done.
Meanwhile, efforts into the development of a better male contraceptive continued.
Condoms made of latex during the 1880s represented the next major advance in the condom.
Condoms made of rubber were thick, and not very flexible. Early versions had a seam as thick as an inner tube and a rubber ring that gave new meaning to "snug" for some. Other versions consisted of nothing more than a cap that covered little more than the head of the penis. Not surprisingly, it often detached itself from the wearer, thus defeating the purpose of wearing a condom in the first place when it occurred at the moment of truth.
On the other hand, latex condoms were thinner, more comfortable, odor-free, and more durable than their rubber cousins. Unfortunately, latex condoms did not see widespread use until the 1930s because of obstacles like the Comstock Act among other things.
Speaking of which, social hygienists added a new dimension to the suppression of the humble condom in the opening years of the 20th century. Through their efforts, American troops in Europe in the First World War were denied access to condoms. As a result, 70-percent or more of our boys over there were afflicted with sexually transmitted diseases whenever they weren't dodging bullets, huddled in damp trenches or immersed in clouds of poisonous gas.
The war years also coincided with the world-wide epidemic of killer influenza. Not only did the U.S. military tacitly contribute to and exacerbate the spread of venereal disease among the troops, but also to the propagation of a deadly pandemic. So committed were military leaders to the single minded pursuit of Woodrow Wilson's war aims that large numbers of healthy individuals were frequently housed in close proximity to infected individuals, often in defiance of recommendations to the contrary by senior medical personnel.
Two for the price of one, if you will.
Fortunately for those who served their country during the Second World War, the military adopted a more commonsense approach to health issues, and aggressively promoted the use of condoms.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s caused a decline in the use of condoms in the United States. The free love pursued by youthful hedonists equated to condom free sex, and experienced a corresponding increase in the occurrence of sexually transmitted disease as a result.
Then came the doom and gloom of the ‘80s: the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, the virus responsible for another freighting acronym; Acquired Immune Deficiency Virus, AIDS.
Other than abstinence, declared the Surgeon General of the United States C. Everett Koop, the only effective protection a slow and painful death was to use a latex condom every time you have sex.