Birth control seems rather simple these days, compared to times of old. From condoms to oral contraceptive pills, preventing pregnancy today is as easy as a trip to the nearest pharmacy.
Our ancestors were not so lucky. Preventing pregnancy took serious work and creativity. It was far from foolproof and not particularly science-based. Superstition was largely at work in most cases. If, say, drinking cat urine or some other foul drink worked for your cousin’s wife a few times (or, at least, seemed to work), it was worth a try. If it was successful for you, too, then it was further proven that it worked universally and would work for future generations.
Some methods are shocking and others are reckless—so reckless that one might question whether our species even wanted to continue on. Of course, hindsight is ignorantly easy. In any case, these age-old methods make for a wild exploration of our history. Maybe we would’ve paid more attention in school if they had taught the good stuff!
Here’s a list of eight birth control methods from the far past. After reading these, you’ll be thankful for the convenience and simplicity of taking your little white pill every morning at 8 a.m.
8 Liquid Contraceptives
Liquid contraceptives were used by many cultures in ancient times as an affordable type of birth control. But the ancient Greeks invented a uniquely foul way that was used up until the First World War: blacksmith water.
A Greek physician in 2nd Century AD named Soranus (there is such irony in this name) came up with the concept that women should drink the water that blacksmiths used to cool metal. I guess, in a sense, it was effective, because with all the toxins floating around in their systems, pregnancy was the least of their concerns. This was such a popular method of birth control that women would volunteer to work in lead-smelting factories for better access to this murky water.
In ancient China, women reportedly consumed mercury in order to terminate their pregnancies. They drank it hot, immediately after intercourse. For extra measure, fried tadpoles were added to the mixture. This lethal potion would have caused many illnesses, including kidney and lung failure, no doubt.
Aboriginal peoples would grind beaver testicles into a fine powder and mix it with alcohol. Other toxic potions included ingesting urine, lead, copper, and arsenic. All of these concoctions have a common theme: drink as many poisons as you can to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Seems reasonable.
Modern-day, comfortable latex condoms have only been in use since 1919. But condoms have been used for the past 15,000 years, and it involved men getting a bit creative (who knew?)
Apparently, if it results in non-reproductive sex, they’re all sorts of involved. As long as it fit, anything from animal intestines, bladders, and even tortoise shells (ouch) were fair game.
By the time the 1850s rolled around, things had gotten a little more civilized. Condoms made from thick vulcanized rubber were used and fit more snugly than the animal membranes of olden days. The catch is they only covered the tip of the penis and were made to be re-used and re-washed.
Spermicides have been around literally forever. They are a method of birth control that uses chemicals to kill sperm. They are available in different forms, including creams and gels, and inserted vaginally before intercourse. Modern-day spermicides are non-staining, lubricative, and unscented.
Overall, the success rate of spermicides is not as high as other methods (70 to 80 percent effective). The success rate climbs when used with other forms of barrier birth control methods, such as condoms and cervix caps.
The Egyptians Did What?
The first written recorded use of spermicides is from the ancient Egyptians, dating as far back as 1850 BCE. The method of choice was a pessary made from crocodile feces and fermented dough. Yes, you read correctly. The low acid content of the crocodile feces was believed to be an effective spermicide.
Other unique combinations included a mixture of seed wool, acacia, dates, and honey, courtesy of the Ebers Papyrus from approximately 1500 BCE. It was ground into a thick paste and placed in the vagina. This concoction probably acted as more of a barrier than a sperm-destroyer.
Aboriginal peoples also believed in the powers of flushing out sperm. They would use a special kettle and brew a mixture of seawater, lemon juice, and other acidic liquids in an effort to “steam the sperm out.” It sounds painful and was not very effective.
5 Coitus Interruptus (the Withdrawal Method)
This is an age-old method still in use today. The concept is that, before a man ejaculates, he withdraws his genitalia from his partner’s vagina. It sounds easy enough, but it is all about timing. If a man is too late withdrawing, or some sperm is left in his urethra from a previous sexual encounter, it could be problematic.
The first recorded usage of this method is from biblical times, approximately 2,500 years ago. The biblical character Onan was tasked with getting his brother’s widow, Tamar, pregnant to provide an heir for his deceased sibling. Instead, Onan had intercourse with her, and withdrew, “spilling his seed on the ground” to guarantee she did not get pregnant. Previous to the Roman Empire, this method was one of the most popular forms of contraception.
Does It Work?
Surprisingly, the withdrawal fares pretty well in terms of statistics. This method has a failure rate of about 18 percent worldwide, compared to the condom’s 17 percent. Not too shabby, all things considering. Today, around 2.5 percent of the world’s population continues to use the withdrawal method.
Douching was a cheap and accessible method of birth control, most common from 1940 to 1960. The word “douche” means to wash or soak – in other words, cleaning out the inside of the vagina with water or other fluid mixtures. The most popular method was using Lysol, an antiseptic soap that, prior to 1953, contained something called cresol.
Wait a Minute…Isn’t Lysol Used to Clean Toilets?
Desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess. Cresol, the phenol compound in Lysol was known to cause burning, inflammation, and, in some cases, death. In 1911, doctors had recorded 193 Lysol poisonings and 5 deaths.
Douching was not just used as a birth control method during this time period. It was also used for hygienic reasons, too. It did not help that the advertisements at the time pushed women into thinking the scent of their Lysol-soaked genitalia would bring the romance back to their marriages. Who needs perfume, when one has Lysol to keep them clean and fresh….down there.
Another popular formula for douching in the 1950s was to use Coca-Cola. This combination of sudsy soda and sugar was thought to wash out all the sperm and prevent pregnancy. This method led to more vaginal infections than unwanted pregnancies, surely.
Douching may have been cheap, but it was not effective at all and did more harm than good (you know, if there was any good to be had by marinating in Cola).
In the Dark Ages, women would tie strange-looking amulets around their thighs. The oddest concoction has to be one made from the anus of a hare.
These had to be worn during intercourse (sometimes even hanging from a woman’s foot) for them to be effective – naturally.
Perhaps, though, this was most effective of all – nothing prevents intercourse right from the start like a hare anus in the room.
2 Squatting and Sneezing
The Greek physician Soranus (there’s that name again), had more than one clever idea up his, er, sleeve. Apparently, squatting and sneezing after intercourse would help loosen the sperm and “shake” it out of a woman’s vagina. Another popular method was to squat while propping one leg up on a chair.
For extra measure, jumping up and down after intercourse could also help shake that sperm out (I bet some poor fellow thought she was jumping at how great it was…wrong). Let’s just say his theory was a bit…..flawed.
1 Rhythm Method
This natural method is one of the few that has been approved by the Roman Catholic Church for both achieving and preventing pregnancy. The idea behind it is to practise abstinence when a woman is ovulating. The rhythm method may also be the only method our friend Soranus invented that somewhat makes sense. Anything is better than squatting and sneezing, to be honest.
Does It Work?
The rhythm method sounds good in theory, but there are some serious flaws that deserve mentioning. Predicting ovulation may be achieved in a woman with an average 28-day cycle. If she ovulates more than once every month, or if her periods are all over the place, this presents a problem.
According to Soranus, the best time to conceive a baby was at the end of a woman’s period, and the worst time was at the beginning of it. One hour in a modern-day sex education class will help you see the flaw in this theory.
Of course, if the sperm has no egg to fertilize, this method works well. Unfortunately, most women have no idea whether that little egg will be in there waiting, arms open. Worldwide, only 2 to 3 percent of the population relies on this method as a reliable form of birth control – probably with good reason.
Give me abstinence or give me death! (by lead poisoning, most likely)
Contraceptive measures have, thankfully, changed dramatically over the ages. Education and modern medicine are mainly the reasons behind this shift to a safer way of preventing pregnancies. Many of the methods of old were dangerous and put the lives of women at great risk. One may question why abstinence wasn’t practised more as an effective birth control method. Wouldn’t this have been easier?
In a darker time, it was a woman’s duty to fulfil her husband’s every need. It was her sexual duty as a wife and, in many cases, she could not refuse him. Perhaps this pressure is what helped lead to such drastic measures as swallowing mercury water and ingesting lead. The next time you are offered a free condom at your local health clinic, take it. It’s guaranteed to be easier --and incredibly more efficient -- than squatting while sneezing (sorry; we just cannot get over that).