Although the modern vagina is awash in birth-control pills, abortion clinics, condoms, IUDs, spermicides, and a tutti-frutti array of other high-tech methods for preventing or ending pregnancy, things weren’t always this easy.
The oldest historical reference I could find to humans using birth control is a French cave painting estimated to be 12,000-15,000 years old that purports to show a man wearing some sort of condom-like device, although to me it merely looks like a guy with a pointed dick trying to fuck a wildebeest. To each their own, I suppose. Different strokes and all that. Whatever gets you through the night.
There is a veritable cornucopia, plethora, bumper crop, mother lode, or honeypot—take your pick—of information online alleging that for millennia, human females have attempted to avoid becoming totes preggers. I can’t vouch for the veracity of any of it—I haven’t been alive for that long—but here’s a bounteous roundup of what’s being alleged.
1. Oral Contraceptives And Abortifacients
A contraceptive prevents conception from ever happening, while an abortifacient terminates a fertilized egg. Many of the lotions, potions, pastes, and herbs listed here were supposedly capable of doing both.
Of the many sick items that women have allegedly taken into their mouths to prevent or terminate pregnancy, drinking mercury would likely be the sickest. Women in ancient China supposedly drank it hot immediately after sex. Sometimes they swallowed it along with sixteen fried tadpoles. This would sometimes terminate pregnancy. It would also lead to sterility, paralysis, brain damage, kidney failure, and death.
In the 2nd century AD, a Greek physician named Soranus—I will now pause to allow Beavis and Butt-head to laugh—recommended that women drink the lead-laden water that blacksmiths would use to cool metal. Supposedly women volunteered to work in lead-smelting factories all the way up to World War I in their never-ending quest not to get knocked-up.
Other ill-advised toxic potions included urine, copper sulfate, arsenic, and strychnine.
A northern African herb known as Silphium is now extinct because Romans ate it out of existence due to its presumed contraceptive and abortifacient properties. Other herbs and fungi alleged throughout the ages to contain such powers include pennyroyal, Queen Anne’s lace, willow, date palm, blue cohosh, dong quai, rue, foxglove, and ergot.
A special shout-out goes to Canadian aboriginals, who’d drink tea made from ground beaver testicles in the belief that it would prevent or end pregnancy. In more modern times they have allegedly added alcohol to the mix in what is known as a “beavertini.”
These are substances and objects that women would shove inside their Love Caves to block sperm from reaching the cervix. Easily the most distasteful of all was an ancient Egyptian method of mixing crocodile dung with honey, rolling it into a ball or mixing it into a paste, placing it inside the womb, and expecting their male partner to achieve an erection despite the stench. The ancient Egyptians were also alleged to have used “sea sponges drenched in lemon juice and vinegar,” which, however repulsive it may be, is still better than crocodile shit.
African women supposedly employed things ranging from vegetable pods, grass plugs, and crushed roots as makeshift diaphragms. In certain Asian countries, bamboo, moss, and seaweed were the items of choice. Greeks would use half a scooped-out pomegranate as an improvised cervical cap.
Due to their high acidity, lemons were often used as diaphragm-like devices. Legendary lover Casanova was said to have a habit of placing a half-lemon inside his paramours’ coochies as a sperm-blocker.
As recently as the 1930s, women allegedly used wooden blocks to, er, block sperm from reaching the cervix. At some unspecified point they came to their senses and realized it hurt like hell.
Betcha didn’t know that Greek philosopher Aristotle advised women to use various oils—cedar, olive, lead, or frankincense—to kill off any invading Greek sperm. On second thought, there’s a chance you don’t even know who Aristotle was.
Indian women of antiquity would attempt to stave off impregnation by using rock salt that had been soaked in oil. Byzantine physician Aëtius of Amida advised ladies to reach in deep and smear their cervices with a poultice made of cedar rosin, alum, wine, and even lead. He counseled men to cover their ding-dongs in vinegar, gallnut, alum, and pomegranate.
No, I’m not talking about half of the male writers for Thought Catalog, myself included—I mean concoctions meant to flush the vagina free of sperm in a last-ditch effort to prevent conception or terminate pregnancy.
Native American women—often disparagingly referred to as “squaws” or “Injun chicks”—attempted to steam sperm out of their hoo-hahs using “a special kettle.” Other douches used by different cultures included vinegar, seawater, and nearly anything believed to be acidic.
In the early 1800s, Dr. Charles Knowlton encouraged douching via syringes—at the time fashioned of primitive items such as horns or bones—using liquid compounds containing things such as zinc sulfite and liquid chloride. Sometime after Charles Goodyear burst onto the scene in the mid-1800s, everyone put down the horned and bony syringes in favor of rubber ones.
In the early part of the 20th century, Lysol disinfectant—yes, LYSOL—was used as a liquid douche not only to prevent pregnancy but also to combat vaginal odor.
In the 1950s and 1960s, an urban legend emerged that women could abort their fertilized eggs by shaking up a bottle of Coca-Cola, inserting it in their vaginas, and letting it spray the carbonic acid all over the frightened sperm as they raced toward the woman’s egg. In the end, it only led to yeast infections.
Aside from the dubious aforementioned cave painting, a reputed condom of antiquity was depicted in a 3,000-year-old Egyptian illustration. Throughout the ages before the handy rubber version was invented, condoms were mostly fashioned of animal parts, particularly bladders and intestines. These date back at least as far as ancient Rome, where segments of animal bladders and intestines would be cleaned and then tied in a knot on one end. Casanova, an apparent pioneer in birth-control methods, reportedly used a sheep-bladder condom festooned with pink ribbons. In the late 1800s, an immigrant to New York named Julius Schmid used “extra sausage casings from butcher shops” to found a “condom empire” that persists in the modern brand names Sheik and Ramses.
Greek physician Soranus—Beavis and Butt-head, please be quiet!—recommended that women should squat and sneeze after coitus in an apparent attempt to disgorge the sperm from their vadges. He also counseled them to jump backwards seven times. Another method of indeterminate origin advised women to squat and punch themselves in the abdomen.
In ancient Rome, women would wear a leather pouch that contained a cat’s liver on their left foot during sex, believing it would prevent pregnancy.
Later on, European ladies in the Dark Ages would wear charms made of and/or containing things such as weasel testicles, bones from black cats, mules’ earwax, and hare anuses to ward off the evil demon known as pregnancy. Such is progress.
Again in ancient Rome, the ancestors of the cast of Jersey Shore believed that one could avert pregnancy by spitting into a frog’s mouth three times. European women in the Middle Ages believed that if you turned the wheel of a grain mill backwards four times at midnight, you would not conceive a child. In certain cultures it was also believed that walking over the graves of female ancestors would prevent one’s womb from birthing an unwanted baby.
What can I tell you? People are dumb.