Part of being a researcher into the everyday things that rarely make it into the popular history books is getting asked to make historically based reconstructions of something that we very much take for granted these days. A recent commission has had us reading up on condoms from the late 16th to 19th centuries, and experimenting with some methods for making them.
Early condoms were primarily seen as a method of reducing the risk of catching Syphilis or Gonorrhea, both endemic in Europe from the late fifteenth century onwards, rather than as a means of preventing unwanted pregnancy.The very earliest were nothing more than medicated squares of linen to be wrapped around the penis after intercourse as a sort of poultice aimed at destroying any ‘impurity’, rather than a barrier to be worn during sex. It isn’t until the 17thCentury that the type of condoms we recognise today were widely available. Whilst some condoms appear to have been made of linen or silk, the most effective ones were made from animal intestines or the swim bladders of fish.
Amazingly, quite a number of early condoms survive, including the earliest known which were excavated at Dudley Castle and which are believed to date to before 1640. I’ve got a Pinterest page which collates some snapshots of extant condoms and related material found whilst searching the web for references- I’ll periodically add to this page as I find more images, but there are enough there to give us a good general idea of how they looked. They are also described in a number of texts including the memoirs of Casanova.
Our experiments use sheep gut, available as sausage casings from specialist suppliers in lengths, or where available, the caecum for preference as it is already the right shape. Making them is more time consuming than difficult, and follows the basic stages of cleaning, sterilising, shaping and finishing.
Stage one: Degrease your skins. Animal intestines usually arrive from the butcher (sold as casings for sausage making) or abbatoir washed out and ready for use. Whilst they are ‘clean’ they are still very greasy and may have some mucous membrane still attached. The first and most important stage in making a condom is to degrease and remove the slimy bit of the membranes as much as possible. Here we are soaking them in a very weak lye solution (potassium hydroxide in this case- it would have been easily made by soaking wood ashes in water and was widely used for laundry throughout history, and for soap making in stronger concentrations). Change the water several times over a few hours, it has a slippery, soapy feeling between the fingers, thats the lye dissolving grease out of your hands, and its doing the same thing to those sausage skins. I was lucky with my raw materials and there wasn’t a great deal of surplus lining to dissolve off, so a good soak and rubbing them well between my hands when I changed the lye water did the trick without needing any serious scraping.
Stage two: Wash in soap and water. Lye is a great degreaser, but we don’t want any overtly alkali residue on the skins or they may irritate the users! Lots of soapy water then a good rinse in fresh water will finish the final degreasing and make sure the skins are as clean as possible. At this stage, if left to dry, you essentially have very thin rawhide. Any moisture and they will reconstitute and start to decay naturally.
Stage three: Fumigate in burning sulphur. Exposing the skins to sulphur dioxide does a couple of things, its an antimicrobial, so it disinfects them helping them last longer, its also a mild bleach so helps make the skins look nice and ‘clean’ if they have any discoloured patches on them. It may also have a role in softening the skins. Sulphur dioxide is still used today to preserve the colour of dried apricots and as a preservative in winemaking. It is also however really not good for you, and can aggravate respiratory complains as well as being an atmospheric pollutant. If fumigating with sulphur, do it outdoors and use small quantities.
Stage four: Cut to size. Whilst the ideal is to use the caecum (bung end) of the intestine for a seamless, naturally shaped condom, cheaper ones appear to have been made from the longer lengths of intestine by tying off the end. Surviving condoms are usually the caecum, so how commonly used the tied versions were, we don’t really know, but it is possible to speculate that they offered a cheaper (and probably far less comfortable) alternative.
In these photos, I have tied off a length of intestine with air blown into it, later I will separate them into two condoms. These skins are about the minimum width useable, ideally when ordering sausage skins for this type of purpose, you want ones aimed at ‘salami’ rather than ‘sausage’! The method remains the same regardless of the size of the casing though.
Stage five: Shape and dry. A simple wooden mould is here used to support a sheep caecum in the early stages of drying to help it assume an anatomically appropriate shape. Once it is partially dry, blowing air into the caecum helps, and the tied off versions were shaped with air in the previous stage.
Tidy up the edges, and let them dry completely. They go papery and slightly crinkly at this stage. If you haven’t degreased properly, you’ll know by now, the skins won’t go papery. In the picture below, the tied end condom is on top by the ribbons and is half of the inflated section seen in an earlier picture, the other three are caecums so needed no end finishing.
Stage six: Add a silk ribbon. Because these are only minimally stretchy and vary in size depending on the animal the skins came from, early condoms needed tying into place. A narrow silk ribbon does the trick, and judging from surviving examples, pink was a preferred colour.
Package for sale! A few surviving early condoms have little paper envelopes with them. The envelope I’ve given mine is slightly spoofed up, in that is bears a quote from an 18thC purveyor of these prophylactics, and also references a famous condom maker from that century. I’m not aware of any surving ones from this date with a printed wrapper, though one or two do have handwritten notes on the envelope. The picture here also has a little doodle on the skin, a few have survived with bawdy pictures on them, I was practicing to see how well the ink took before trying my hand at a suitable embellishment!
From here on, their efficiency was partly due to how carefully they were used, and partly a matter of hoping your condom maker had used good quality materials and worked carefully. Evidence suggests many condoms were reused a number of times, so careful washing and drying in between would have been necessary.
It goes without saying I hope, that this tutorial is offered for historical interest, and that if you are in need of a preventative, that you will seek out a modern one! Interestingly, condoms made from animal gut are still available, these days they come with an elastic base rather than a silk ribbon and are packaged neatly rolled and well lubricated. Their 16th-19thc counterparts often needed moistening in warm milk, water or some other liquid before use.
Further interesting reading:
The Pox. The Life and Near Death of a Very Social Disease. Kevin Brown (Sutton Publishing, 2005)
‘The archaeology of private life: the Dudley Castle condoms’. David Gaimster, Peter Boland, Steve Linnane and Caroline Cartwright,Â Post-Medieval Archaeology 30 (1996), 129-142