Condoms: a practical history of prevention

By Global Moms Challenge

February 13, 2015

The day of love, Valentine’s Day, is also International Condom Day. Our guest post from Sara Goff, from the Maternal Child Survival Program Communications team, shares the history of this contraception standard and why it still matters very much for all of us.

Clever love-makers of old repurposed linens and animal intestines into practical devices to reduce their chances of pregnancy and disease. These technologies have, thankfully, since evolved, yet aim to accomplish the same goals.


A community midwife talks to a young mother of three about family planning at a community health center in Bamyan, Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Kate Holt/Jhpiego)

Safe options continue to be a priority for people who are sexually active. It is an ongoing challenge for health workers to share accurate, age appropriate and culturally sensitive information—and to give those who elect to use modern contraceptive methods the access they need.

Condoms have an advantage over other forms of birth control; they are temporary, they’re also accessible, can be used by breastfeeding women, and do not require the assistance of a health care provider. They also remain the only family planning item on the market with the dual purpose of protecting against both sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy.

At USAID’s flagship Maternal and Child Survival Program (MCSP), we are committed to advocating for the health of women and girls across the globe. In honor of International Condom Day on February 14th, we’ve created a brief history of this simple invention that has continued to protect people from disease and unwanted pregnancy for hundreds of years.

12,000 BCE: Males wrap it up

A drawing discovered in the Grottes des Combarelles of southwestern France depicts what anthropologists believe to be the first recorded evidence of a condom-like creation for men.

850 BCE: Women take matters into their own hands

Ancient papyri show proactive females using chemical compounds and natural substances such as crocodile feces as methods of contraception. (More recent research has observed that the alkalinity of crocodile dung actually created optimal conditions for sperm.)

1540’s: Disease scare

In Italy, Dr. Gabriele Falloppio discovered and publicized syphilis, which initiated a surge in condom advocacy to protect “adventurous” males. Animal-skin condoms were prevalent but difficult to obtain, thus they were often reused for several encounters.

1930’s: Condoms for everyone!

This decade saw groundbreaking innovation in contraception and disease prevention. Latex was developed, paving the way for a more sanitary one-time-use condom that closely resembles today’s version. Prior to the federal requirement for Food and Drug Administration approval for contraceptive devices, the “Gee Bee Ring” was also introduced as the inaugural version of the female condom.

1980’s: HIV epidemic reenergizes the condom

Condom sales had stagnated following the introduction of the birth control pill. But when the HIV crisis emerged in the 1980’s, sales of condom surged 33% in the US. Advertisement campaigns began to target both men and women.

Today: Innovation and education


A family outside of their home in the village of Bokola, Tanzania (Courtesy of Kate Holt/Jhpiego)

Contraception and disease prevention have come a long way since the fish-bladder condoms of ancient Egypt. In the US, most high school students learn about the risks associated with pregnancy and disease, and the preventative measures available to them at school.

While knowledge and access have drastically improved globally, various economic, political, social and cultural factors still widely limit the ability of millions to obtain accurate information and resources. The Maternal Child Survival Program is working to create more innovative approaches to increase support, access, quality, demand, equity and utilization of contraceptives.

Changes in the style and use of condoms continue to evolve. The female condom—one of the 10 underutilized products promoted by the UN Commission on Life-saving Commodities—is now available in the United States and about 130 other countries. This method gives women control and choice over their own sexual health: even when her partner does not want to use a male condom, a female condom allows women to protect themselves against HIV, other diseases, and unwanted pregnancies.

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