The Long Fight for Birth Control in America

Cervical caps from sometime in the Gilded Age

(Video lecture based on this essay available here: https://youtu.be/5XvNht4C9C0 )

When most Americans think about the history of birth control in the U.S., they think of Margaret Sanger, the intrepid founder of Planned Parenthood who popularized the reproductive rights movement. In truth, however, birth control in various forms as well as abortion has been around in America from the beginning. Birth control first became a large industry during the Gilded Age, roughly 1870–1900, and this is also when the first backlash began.

Condoms were of course the first, most primitive form of birth control (though primitive in this meaning doesn’t mean they don’t work -condoms, when used correctly are usually successful at preventing pregnancy and STDs alike) and they were originally made of intestines from slaughtered livestock. They were called “skins” in those days. Condom making was once an actual profession that people could perform in-home workshops. Condon makers usually located near slaughterhouses to have ready access to the raw materials they needed.

Once vulcanization was discovered in the 1830s and became widely available, it was suddenly possible to mass-produce condoms that were standardized and more reliable. Other options became available too -male caps, womb veils, diaphragms, and pessaries. Douching syringes and the first IUDs were also created. Old women sold supposedly spermicidal gels and lubricants made from traditional formulas. When scientific testing was done on these traditional remedies decades later, it was found that many of them did in fact work as spermicides. (Go granny!)

All of these were created to fill a burgeoning market. Women wanted to control their fertility through more reliable methods than the failure-prone traditional date and rhythm methods. Controlling fertility is the first, most important component of bodily autonomy, and bodily autonomy is the foundation of all other rights. Without fertility control -i.e., birth control -women’s choices and options can be curtailed for most of their lives by pregnancy and childrearing.

Women wanted this control. Men often supported them in this desire or wanted it separately. Where did people buy these early forms of birth control? Primarily from individual small business owners. Birth control proprietors often sold their wares out of their houses, in trunks they carried about, and at churches and public meetings. Small pharmacies would sell them from a backroom or hidden case.

Mail order was the only option for many Americans who lived far from major cities and had no access to medical professionals who were open-minded. Proprietors would insert ads in magazines, newspapers, and other literature that went out across the country using discrete codes. Any and all forms of birth control, some more effective or reliable than others, could be purchased through the mail. Most of these firms were based in states that didn’t criminalize the practice and mailed their wares to states that did.

There was a backlash, of course. Puritans and busybodies always feel the need to control the private actions of other people. This is where Anthony Comstock enters the story. Comstock was the puritanical, hard-nosed anti-vice crusader who lent his name to the infamous Comstock Act, which also passed primarily due to his support. People who so desperately seek to control the actions of other people normally do so because they can’t control their own inner demons, but if that was the case for Comstock, there is no record of what those were.

The Comstock Act made it a crime to sell all forms of birth control and any literature regarding sex education by mail. It classified all such as “obscene.” Comstock considered birth control one of the worst forms of vice because it encouraged sexual freedom and sex outside the sole “approved” purposes of marriage and procreation.

It says something about the lack of popularity of this bill that the primary enforcer was Comstock and his anti-vice team in New York. Not only did Congress not appropriate enough money for enforcement, but most postal inspectors didn’t give a shit about what the laws said and didn’t care to seize people’s mail-order condoms. Comstock’s team arrested both mail-order and in-person proprietors of contraceptives in New York City.

(Strangely enough -or not so strangely, really -they only went after individual and small-scale suppliers. By this point, there were large distributors and more than one firm on its way to creating a millionaire from selling condoms. Birth control devices were also distributed by firms including BF Goodrich, Goodyear, Sears, and U.S. Rubber. None of these were ever prosecuted. Money, as always in American capitalism, makes the laws.)

If Comstock had an arch-nemesis, it would have been Sarah Chase. This young woman graduated from one of the few medical schools that would admit women at the time, the Cleveland Homeopathic College, and moved herself and her daughter (she was also a single mother) to Manhattan, where she began to make a living by giving talks on sex and physiology to local groups, including many church groups, and selling contraceptives in person and through the mail.

She would spend the next 30 years in a long-running battle with Anthony Comstock.

Comstock first arrested Chase in 1878 as part of a sting operation. She was caught selling a douching syringe to an undercover vice agent. Several more syringes were taken into custody at the scene. She was a real criminal mastermind in the making, obviously.

Her bail was $1500, an insane amount for the times, but it was quickly posted by affluent friends (Patients? Donors? All of the above?) and she was freed. The grand jury that heard the case refused to indict her. They said there wasn’t enough evidence. An all-male jury in 1878 refused to bring charges against this woman for selling birth control. That should tell you something about how popular it was.

Comstock didn’t want to lose this opportunity, so he decided it would be a great idea to sneak into the grand jury room and convince the foreman to sign articles of indictment against her. Those charges were dropped when it was discovered what he had done.

The battle between the two continued for the remainder of the century. Chase was arrested by Comstock or his agents a total of 5 times. She was convicted only once, when a patient died following an abortion. That charge was for abortion and not about contraception. She served a brief jail term and went back to work. The other four times no jury would even indict her. She continued selling contraceptives even while cases were pending. Comstock must have hated her.

Public opinion was not on Comstock’s side. It rarely is when it comes to extremists. The indefatigable Puritan would continue to harass Chase and other small entrepreneurs for the rest of his life, however, and the Comstock Laws would outlive him.

Sanger, Planned Parenthood, and many other organizations would do battle against the Comstock Laws and their state counterparts. The battle for the right to buy birth control in as simple a form as condoms (which, by the way, date back at least to King Minos in 3000 BC) didn’t end until the restrictions were overturned by the Supreme Court.

Those cases were Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 and Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972.

This is especially important at this particular moment in time. Why? Griswold established the right to marital privacy in birth control and Eisenstadt the same for single people.

Another important decision, Roe v. Wade, whose days are numbered even as I type these words, was based in large part on Griswold. The leaked draft says the “right to privacy” doesn’t exist, which if included in the final draft, can be used to go after birth control. Their next target is going to be contraceptives, probably right down to condoms.

Make no mistake: Comstock might be dust, but his spiritual heirs are alive and well, and still determined to control other people.

More reading:

“The Story of the Condom” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3649591/

Tone, Andrea. “Black Market Birth Control: Contraceptive Entrepreneurship and Criminality in the Gilded Age.” The Journal of American History 87, no. 2 (September 2000): 435–59.

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American History graduate student, former entrepreneur, special needs parent.

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Rebecca Brown

Rebecca Brown

American History graduate student, former entrepreneur, special needs parent.

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