Like them or loathe them, condoms are a part of daily life. Experts predict that 18.6 billion will be used worldwide in 2015. They live in our nightstands, our wallets, our handbags and frequently go where we go, double entendre not intended. But just how much do we know about them?
“Enough” is probably the most popular answer to that question, and a fair answer it would be. But read on anyway, and the next time a conversation about contraception pops up, double entendre again not intended, you’ll be able to amaze or disgust your friends with your knowledge.
10. They’re Ancient
The very first representations of condoms were discovered in a cave in France, and are dated at around 12,000 to 15,000 years old. The oldest extant condom was found in Lund, Sweden. It’s made from pig intestine, is reusable and dates back to around 1640. It came with a handy user manual written in Latin, which recommended washing it in warm milk in order to avoid disease. Keep that in mind the next time you complain about having to use one.
9. They Used to be Hard to Get
Once available in the United States by prescription only, condoms first became available via a vending machine in 1928. Before that prescriptions weren’t easy to get, unless you were a man who happened to enjoy the company of prostitutes. Some doctors, adverse to giving them to women interested in birth control and STD prevention, would happily dish them out to husbands for their extra-curricular activities.
But if you’re famous, the condoms will come to you (like most other things if you’re famous). At the Sochi Olympics, athletes at Olympic Village received 100,000 condoms. That works out to 35 condoms per athlete, or more time spent employing them than actually competing.
8. They Were Developed to Combat Syphilis
In 16th century Italy, a man named Gabriele Falloppio (of Fallopian tubes fame) wrote a paper on syphilis. This was once known as the French disease, a name we’ll leave up to you to decide the fairness of. It was a major killer at the time, and Falloppio performed the first reported test using linen sheaths. These were soaked in a chemical solution, dried and used to cover the glans of the penis, while being held on ever so quaintly with a ribbon. A test involving 1100 participants showed that the men did not contract syphilis. We’re not sure if said test would have been enjoyable given the subject matter, or nerve-wracking given the stakes.
7. The Materials Have Evolved
It’s common knowledge that condoms weren’t always made from latex, but the variety of what they’ve been made from in the past is surprising. Animal intestines, linen, silk and, questionably, leather have been used throughout history. Different countries used different materials. In the Roman Empire goat bladders were the go-to option, while in Japan leather and tortoiseshell were once used. Linen was used in Ancient Egypt as early as 150 AD. Casanova, the notorious womanizer of the 19th century, was also said to have used linen condoms, and referred to them as “English riding coats.” That must rank as perhaps the most graceful of the many nicknames the condom has acquired through the ages.
The latex we all know today was invented in 1920. The London Rubber Company, now known as Durex, was the first European nation to sell latex condoms in 1932.
6. They Were Reusable
In the 1600s, condoms made from animal intestines were first made available to the general public. But due to their cost, they were re-used repeatedly. Until the advances of the 19th century, a single condom cost around the equivalent of several months pay for a prostitute in the United States.
Reusable condoms were popular much later than many might imagine. The invention of rubber vulcanization by Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock in 1844 revolutionized the industry, making it possible to mass-produce condoms cheaply and quickly. But these weren’t available worldwide — the rubber would perish on the long journey by sea to isolated places.
Thicker, reusable condoms therefore remained commonplace in New Zealand in the 1950s. And in Japan during World War Two, many of the women who worked in the brothels noted that the most degrading job was “cleaning the condoms at the end of the day.” Your job doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?
5. Condoms Replaced Weasel Testicles
While it’s now the most tried and tested form of birth control, condoms didn’t boom until the 20th century. Before that there are accounts of varied and far more fascinating birth control methods. In Europe during the Middle Ages, women were advised to wear weasel testicles on their thighs or hang an amputated foot from their necks. It was also believed in some quarters that should a woman wish to avoid pregnancy she need only walk three times around the spot where a pregnant wolf had urinated. Quick, easy and none of that awkward pausing or worrying that the condom’s ripped.
A more dangerous method comes from centuries old China, where women would be encouraged to drink mercury or lead. Technically, that was effective, as those who partook generally either died or became sterile.
4. Celebrities Endorse Them
It was announced in 2012 that One Direction had turned down the opportunity to appear on a range of condoms. Their management team was so against the idea that they’re considering a lawsuit against an American brand which released a One Erection range. But history has shown us that not every celebrity feels the same way.
The boy band JLS released a condom range with Durex in 2010. It was announced that every penny made would go back into the JLS Charitable Foundation. Heartwarming stuff. Other celebrities to get involved have included Daft Punk, Kesha and Madonna. There were even commemorative royal wedding condoms. What better way to celebrate the marriage of Prince William and Princess Kate? They were imaginatively titled Crown Jewels, though they were, tragically, a novelty item only. The next celebrity condom endorsement is anyone’s guess, but our money is on Bieber.
3. They Have Surprising Secondary Uses
The average modern condom can hold an astonishing one gallon of liquid, although hopefully they’ll never be called upon to do so. But their reputation for surprising strength, along with their general versatility, has seen them used for other purposes. There are reports of soldiers using them to protect their rifles from water damage. They can even be used to start a fire, help with the application of first aid and be weaponized as part of a slingshot to hunt small game.
After the Indian government began distributing free condoms to combat both HIV and a rapidly increasing population, many of the recipients found purposes for them that the government hadn’t quite intended. Health workers state that road building contractors acquired a large amount in order to mix them with concrete and tar, thereby creating crack resistant and smoother road surfaces. Builders spread beds of condoms along the base of cement plastering to prevent water seepage, while weavers would use them to lubricate and polish their looms. And in the countryside, villagers would use the condoms as disposable water containers to help them wash up after a bathroom break in the field.
2. New Advances Have Been Made
Sexual health and avoidance of pregnancy were long the priority of condom development. With those now covered, companies have been able to move on to attempting to remove the stigma of equating condoms with less enjoyable sex.
The 1990s was a decade to remember for condom enthusiasts. Flavored options appeared, while variations and combinations of lubricated, ribbed, studded, thinner and even glow-in-the-dark condoms emerged as well. An increase in the enjoyment for both partners was the driving motivation behind these creations. The march of progress continues today — Origami Condoms is currently developing the Receptive Anal Intercourse condom, which they call “radical new condoms for the 21st Century.”
1. The Future
From animal intestines to rubber, the condom has been on quite a journey in its history, and the next big step could be just around the corner. Scientists have been working on an “invisible” condom, a gel that hardens when subjected to increased temperatures. Let’s all cross our fingers and hope that science can figure this one out sooner rather than later.