Throughout the ages people have tried to find ways of preventing conception and venereal diseases. Obvious methods, such as withdrawal, the rhythm method, douches and sponges were used, as were various predecessors of today's condom. In ancient Egypt a linen sheath was used as protection against troublesome insects and tropical diseases. The Chinese tried to prevent infection by wrapping oiled silk paper around the penis, and the Japanese had leather and tortoiseshell sheaths. The Romans used tampons that had been dipped in herbs and condoms made of goats' bladders.
The history of condoms in Europe begins in the sixteenth century, when the venereal disease syphilis reached epidemic proportions. In 1564, the Italian doctor Gabriel Falloppio wrote in the book 'Morbo Gallico', that a linen bag drenched in a solution of salt or herbs formed a protection against the disease. In the eighteenth century linen and silk condoms were used, as well as sheaths made of lambs' and goats' gut. To prevent them slipping off, a ribbon on the open end of the condom was tied around the penis. The sheaths made of bladder or gut could be used more than once; in contemporary paintings and prints they are some-times seen hanging on a hook or a clothes line to dry.
The word condom is probably derived from Latin "condus" meaning receptacle. Another explanation is that the gut condom was invented by the English army doctor Colonel Quondam in around 1645 and that the word is a corruption of his name. We do not know who invented condoms, but we do know that they were in use. There is evidence of this in the writings of Marquis de Sade, Casanova and James Boswell. The latter, a Scottish lawyer and writer, protected himself against sexually transmitted diseases by using a linen condom. During a visit to an Amsterdam brothel in 1764, he drank with a prostitute, but the encounter went no further as he'd left his "armour" behind. When visiting a brothel in Marseilles, Casanova tried so-called "English raincoats", and spoke of reaching great heights.
The concept of a specialised condom shop such as Condomerie® Het Gulden Vlies is not a new one. In the 18th century, there was already a condom shop in Amsterdam. In The Hague, the trader Mathijs van Mordechay Cohen sold "condons" that he made himself from lambs' bladders and ribbons. In the middle of the eighteenth century, trade in condoms thrived in London. At the centre of this activity were two ladies, Mrs Phillips and Mrs Perkins. They each had a condom shop and openly competed with each other in their pamphlets. Mrs Phillips also ran a wholesale company on Half Moon Street on the Strand. The two women both had large stocks of bladders, sheaths and other contraceptives, which they sold to apothecaries, travellers and ambassadors. The ladies used rhymes to advertise their products, showing evidence of a liberal and enlightened mind. For the less well-to-do there was a certain Miss Jenny, who sold washed second-hand condoms.
In 1839, Charles Goodyear discovered a way of processing natural rubber, which is too stiff when cold and too soft when warm, in such a way as to make it elastic. This had advantages for making condoms; unlike the sheeps' gut condoms, they could stretch and did not tear so quickly when used. Those very early rubbers had a seam and were as thick as an inner tube, so they could not have been very comfortable. Besides this type, small rubber condoms covering only the glans were often used in England and the United States. There was more risk of losing them, of course, and if the rubber ring was too tight, it would constrict the penis. This condom was the original "capote" (French for condom), perhaps because of its similarity to a woman's bonnet worn at the time, also called a capote. A century later it was hoped the invention of plastic and other man-made materials would lead to an improvement in the quality of condoms. That was not the case. What could be done however, was something about the speedy deterioration of the rubber. Since that time, condoms have not only become thinner but also more reliable. In 1995, plastic condoms went on the market in the USA.
Latex, the sap from a rubber tree is the raw material for condoms. It is obtained by making a slanted cut in the bark of the tree. A bucket is hung under the cut which catches the sap. It is a continual and labour intensive process. More than 80% of rubber is used in the car industry, mainly for tyres. Rubber plantations are primarily located in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. The production of condoms from latex is relatively simple and since 1920, has virtually remained unchanged. In the condom factory, a large vat is filled with latex and various chemicals are added to ensure the durability of the end product. Next, a row of glass moulds (in the form of condoms), suspended from a conveyor belt, are plunged into the latex, a technique known as "dipping". The moulds go through a series of latex dips, turning themselves around to insure even distribution and a thin layer of latex. Between each dip, they are dried with hot air and vulcanised. This treatment insures optimal malleability, elasticity and durability. The condoms are then released by a powerful water-jet spray. Next, in the finishing phase, the condoms are dried and powdered. They then go through a series of proceedures to test their quality. Afterwards a lubricant may be added and they are packaged in a hygenic, airtight aluminium pack. During the entire production process the condoms are constantly undergoing quality controls, like the elektronic leaktest (ElectroLyte WaterTest - ELWT).
illustrations: copyright Bill Bodewes