From reusable animal intestines to single-use latex, condoms have been utilised for thousands of years. Indeed, depending on your interpretation of ancient wall paintings, prophylactic usage may date back to 15,000 BC.
Initially introduced to combat the transmission of disease, contraception has become the primary function of condoms relatively recently. Condoms emerged as a crude animal product, then transformed into a frequently elitist and expensive commodity before eventually finding their place in the mass market as the cheap and disposable item we’re familiar with today.
But what exactly were the condom’s origins? And which technological advancements and cultural attitudes drove its development?
The origin of the word ‘condom’ is unknown
There are many plausible explanations for the origin of the word ‘condom’ but no prevailing conclusion. It might be derived from the Latin word condus meaning ‘a receptacle’. Or the Persian word kendu or kondu meaning ‘an animal skin used to store grain’.
It could be a reference to Dr. Condom who advised King Charles II on limiting the amount of illegitimate children he was having, though whose existence is widely disputed. Or it could have followed equally nominatively from farmers in Condom in France whose experience wrapping sausage meat in intestines may well have inspired them to invent prophylactics. The exact origin, or correct combination of the above, is unknown.
The ancient Greeks may have invented condoms
The first disputed mention of prophylactic devices is found in the Grotte Des Combarelles caves in France. A wall painting dating back to 15,000 BC supposedly depicts a man wearing a sheath. However, it’s unclear whether it is indeed a sheath, or whether it was used as a condom if so.
Depictions on ancient Egyptian temples of men using linen sheaths from around 1000 BC share similarities with modern sources.
The ancient Greeks may have also invented the first female condom
Written in 4 AD, describing events from 2-3 years prior, Antoninus Liberalis’ Metamorphoses includes a tale about King Minos of Crete whose semen contained “serpents and scorpions”. Following the advice of Prokris, Minos inserted a goat’s bladder into a woman’s vagina before intercourse, believing it prevented the transmission of any and all diseased carried by serpents and scorpions.
Japan had a unique approach to making condoms
Glans condoms, which covered just the tip of the penis, are widely accepted to have been used throughout Asia during the 15th century. In China, they were made out of lamb intestines or oiled silk paper, whereas tortoise shells and animal horns were the chosen materials for prophylactics in Japan.
Interest in condoms rose following a syphilis outbreak
The first, undisputed account of condoms appeared in a text written by influential Italian physicist Gabrielle Fallopio (who discovered the Fallopian tube). Documenting research in response to the syphilis outbreak which had ravaged Europe and beyond in 1495, The French Disease was published in 1564, two years after Fallopio’s death. It detailed a linen sheath soaked in a chemical solution being used to cover the glans of the penis, fastened with a ribbon.
The first physical condoms were found in England in 1647
The earliest evidence of definitive physical use of condoms was uncovered during excavations of Dudley Castle between 1983 and 1993, during which a sealed latrine was found to contain 10 shaped animal membranes. 5 had been used and the rest were found inside each other unused. The latrine had been sealed by occupying Royalists in 1647 following the destruction of the castle’s defenses.
Writers and sex workers helped popularise condoms
By the 18th century, the contraceptive benefits of condoms were understood to a greater extent. Usage became common amongst sex workers and references became frequent amongst writers, notably Marquis De Sade, Giacomo Casanova and John Boswell.
Condoms of this period endured an extensive manufacturing process and so were expensive and likely only available to a small number of people. Casanova is said to have inflated condoms prior to using them in order to inspect them for holes.
The vulcanisation of rubber revolutionised condom production
In the mid-19th century, major developments in rubber manufacturing paved the way for mass-produced condoms. There remains some debate as to whether it was American Charles Goodyear who discovered vulcanisation in 1839 and patented it in 1844 or whether it was Englishman Thomas Hancock in 1843.
Nevertheless, vulcanisation revolutionised production, making condoms stronger and more malleable. The first rubber condom appeared in 1855, and by the 1860s, large-scale production was underway.
Cultural and religious attitudes limited condom usage
This boom in condom production, distribution and usage prompted a backlash in America. The 1873 Comstock laws effectively outlawed contraception, forcing condoms onto the black market which led to a huge rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
It wasn’t until the outbreak of World War One in 1918 that contraceptive usage increased again, chiefly due to around 15% of allied forces contracting an STI during the war.
‘Cement dipping’ refined the production of rubber condoms
Another major development in condom production was Polish-German entrepreneur Julius Fromm’s 1912 invention of ‘cement dipping’. This involved liquefying rubber with gasoline or benzene, then coating a mould with the mixture, creating thinner, stronger latex condoms with a lifespan of five years, up from three months.
From 1920, water replaced gasoline and benzene which made production much safer. Towards the end of the decade, automated machinery allowed production to be scaled up which drastically reduced the price of condoms.
Trojan and Durex adapted well to conquer the market
In 1937, the US Food and Drug Administration labelled condoms a drug, which prompted a major improvement in quality control measures. Whereas a mere quarter of condoms were previously tested, each individual condom had to pass testing.
US-based Youngs Rubber Company and UK-based London Rubber Company were quick to adapt to the new legal requirements which gave their respective products, Trojan and Durex, a sizeable advantage over the competitors. In 1957, Durex released the first ever lubricated condom.
Modern attitudes have led to increased condom usage
The 1960s and 1970s saw a widespread lifting of bans on selling and advertising condoms, and an increase in education on the contraceptive benefits. The final Comstock Laws were overturned in 1965, France similarly removed anti-contraception laws two years later, and in 1978, Ireland allowed condoms to be legally sold for the first time.
Although the invention of the female contraceptive pill in 1962 relegated condoms to the position of the second most-favoured contraceptive where it remains today, the 1980s AIDS epidemic underpinned the importance of safe sex which saw sales and usage of condoms skyrocket.