VINTAGE CONDOMS by Erin O’Quinn
Like Dean Pace-Frech, I am fascinated by the last turn of the century … the nineteenth turning to twentieth. I set my series of Gaslight Mystery novels in 1923 and 1924, several years after my colleague’s stories. But what I have to say today about condoms can easily pertain to his time and his characters too.
This very brief look at condoms is my unabashed way of introducing a series of novels called "The Gaslight Mysteries,” published by Amber Quill Press, and found on their website bookstore:
Historians of such esoteric subjects agree that condoms were first used for prevention of pregnancy, and by wealthy men only. That makes sense, since women were naturally held to the task of avoiding impregnation, and only wealthy men might wish to keep their seed from being spread outside the marriage bed.
Early condoms, perhaps worn first in ancient China, were apparently small devices that covered the glans only, made from oiled silk paper or lamb intestines. Later, in Japan, they were made of tortoise shell or animal horn. Ouch . . . not for the wearer, but for the receiver!
When a particularly deadly strain of syphilis broke out in Europe in the late 15th century, condoms began to be developed to stop the spread of this disease. One treatise describes linen sheaths soaked in chemicals and allowed to dry. These devices, which covered the glans only, were tied on with a ribbon, giving a whole new meaning to the words baby’s bonnet.
After 1500, penis protection became much more widespread throughout Europe. They were called “condoms” gradually, starting in the mid-1600s; and they might be made of animal intestines and bladders, or of linen.
“In the late 15th century, Dutch traders introduced condoms made from "fine leather" to Japan. Unlike the horn condoms used previously, these leather condoms covered the entire penis.”
The notorious philanderer Casanova was proud of his “assurance caps,” and was reported to have given public demonstrations by blowing into them, proudly showing their lack of holes (see photo).
In spite of opposition—mainly from the clergy—condoms, once developed, multiplied quickly. According to Wiki, they “were sold at pubs, barbershops, chemist shops, open-air markets, and at the theater throughout Europe and Russia.” Once they spread to America, land of invention and individuality, condoms became more and more sophisticated.
In my books, the characters are able to buy their protection from the gay pub or “Molly House” called Paddy’s, a logical place to find sexual appurtenances.
In the first novel HEART TO HART, Michael slips a clumsy latex condom out of his dresser drawer. It seems that, since the mid 1800’s and Charles Goodyear’s discovery of processing natural rubber, condoms could be made of stretched rubber, wrapped around the penis and held in place with a rubber ring. These early condoms were thick as a bicycle inner tube. One imagines that while one partner might barely tolerate the enlargement, the other might suffer the indignity of feeling nothing at all.
Anyway, by the time Michael was seducing Simon, condoms were being made from latex—rubber suspended in water rather than in gasoline or benzene. These protective devices were stronger, thinner, and had a shelf life up to five years.
In the second series novel SPARRING WITH SHADOWS, Michael slyly leaves a package for his flatmate. It’s a condom made of thin animal bladder, the latest in American-made protection, thin enough and pliable enough to ensure the man’s pleasure as well as the other obvious benefits.
Many of the photos that follow are taken from the following website: a gallery of images assembled by Ethan Persoff,
Thanks, Ethan. I “use” them with gratitude.
Just a note: The U.S.-manufactured Sheik and Ramses brands were well established by 1882. Trojans, also developed in America, were popular then as now. (As a USC grad, I have to add here: Go! Trojans!)
Paper packaging was, and remains, a popular dispensary for condoms.
In the source listed above, Ethan Persoff notes:
The very interesting book "Remember your rubbers!" (Collectible Condom Containers) by Elliott, Goehring and O'Brien published by Schiffer Publishing Co., strangely does not show any of the examples offered here on eBay by us. Does this mean these are rarer than their tin counterparts?
It also states the following on paper packaging: "Interestingly enough, both the oldest and newest rubber packages are envelopes. India rubbers, latex rubbers and animal membrane prophylactics are found in envelopes. Most hold one dozen rubbers lying flat, though a few can be found with one quarter dozen. ‘Genuine Liquid Latex’ rubbers came packaged with four (rolled) to an envelope and wrapped in cellophane. Rarer are envelopes with a single rubber in the package…"
To conclude, I need to add that my fictional men use condoms sparingly, and not at all when they become “exclusive” lovers in the novels TO THE BONE and THIN AS SMOKE. But we as readers need to realize they were not only available, but necessary in an age when syphilis, “The Great Pox,” was a scourge and a killer.
Erin O’Quinn sprang from the high desert hills of Nevada, from a tiny town which no longer exists. A truant officer dragged her kicking and screaming to grade school, too late to attend kindergarten; and since that time her best education has come from the ground she’s walked and the people she’s met.In celebration of History Week Part II, I will be giving away an Ecopy of my first novel, A Place to Call Their Own, which is available from JMS Books. Comment and follow me and the other folks on Twitter to enter to win!
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