Paintings that go back to 12 000 BC in the Les Combarelles cave in the Département Dordogne / France show how penis sheaths were worn.
The male sex organ is covered by what is known as a “karnata” on an Egyptian statue from the period around 4 000 BC. The “karnata” was probably used to provide protection against injury in battle and against insect bites rather than for contraceptive purposes. Indian and African cultures used similar devices to protect themselves against leeches and parasites transmitted by fishes – or for genital decoration purposes.
Minos, the legendary king of Crete, son of Zeus – the father of the gods – and Europa, is said to have used the urinary bladders of goats as condoms around 1 500 BC. Curiously enough, the aim here was to induce pregnancy rather than to prevent it. According to the myth, Minos’ ejaculate contained poisonous scorpions, snakes and millipedes, so that all the women with whom he had sexual intercourse died. A spell that was cast on him by his wife Pasiphae, who was immortal – and chronically jealous. Procris, the daughter of the king of Athens, advised Minos to insert a goat’s bladder into Pasiphae’s vagina so that he could father children with her. This goat’s bladder collected the fatal ejaculate; the subsequent sexual act was then safe and led to Pasiphae becoming pregnant at long last. Strictly speaking, what is being referred to here is not therefore a condom but an early version of a pessary (= a female condom). All of this is at any rate reported by the Greek poet Antoninus Liberalis in his tale “The Fox of Procris”, the final chapter of his “Metamorphoses” (150 AD).
Condoms were familiar in ancient Japan too (1 000 BC). They were called “Kabutogata” and were generally made from tortoiseshell - the dried shells of sea turtles, to be exact.
Condoms are not mentioned in ancient Indian Sanskrit sources like the “Kama Sutra” (200 – 300 AD), although a kind of supporting sheath is referred to there that is supposed to help men to regain their virility. If it did not have any holes in it, contraception was another theoretical objective here.
There is no mention of condoms anywhere in early Middle Age texts; chastity is preached instead.
Following the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492, Spanish sailors brought syphilis back to Europe. As time went on, it was, significantly, called the “New World disease” and the “Indians’ revenge”. Spanish mercenaries serving with the French Army were involved in conquering the kingdom of Naples in 1495 – and spread syphilis there. It was therefore given the name “French disease” – the army of Charles VIII. (1470 – 1498), the King of France, was made responsible for spreading the disease in Europe.
In 1564, the Italian anatomist and surgeon Gabriele Falloppio (1523 – 1562) recommended in his work “De Morbo Gallico” (“About the French Disease”) the use of linen sacks impregnated with medicinal and spermicidal substances like mercury salts – the first definite reference to a protective measure against syphilis.
Although there is no historical verification of the story, Dr Condom – an English doctor at the court of King Charles II (who reigned from 1660 to 1685) – recommended the use of sheep’s bladders as protection against infection and for contraceptive purposes.
In 1671, the French writer Madame de Sévigné (1626 – 1696) complained in a letter to her daughter, Comtesse Françoise Marguerite de Grignan, that the rubber sheath “dulled pleasure but reduced danger”.
A “condum” is mentioned for the first time in English literature in 1706 in the poem “A Scot’s Answer to a British Vision”. The author was John Hamilton, the second Lord Belhaven and Stenton (1656 – 1708).
The English doctor Daniel Turner (1667 – 1741) used the word “condom” for the first time in a scientific work about syphilis in 1717.
Giovanni Giacomo Casanova (1725 – 1798), probably the most famous womaniser of his time, used condoms made from animals’ intestines to provide protection against syphilis. Tradition has it that he inflated them before use to make sure they were in perfect condition (and to amuse the ladies present).
Around 1750, a Mrs Philips ran the world’s first condom trading business in London for customers from all over Europe; she later shared the monopoly with a Mrs Perkins.
The German poet Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856) used condoms made from violet silk. Although they were made to fit exactly by a tailor, they were not very reliable – Heine died of syphilis.
In 1789, the German doctor and syphilis specialist Christoph Girtanner (1760 – 1800) proposed sheaths to protect the membrum virile in the form of condoms made from fish bladders, although the public sale of them needed in his opinion to be prohibited for moral reasons.
In 1820, the British manufacturer and inventor Thomas Hancock (1786 – 1865) received his first rubber patent covering the production of elastic bands and fabrics for gloves, stockings and shoes.
After the US chemist Charles Nelson Goodyear (1800 – 1860) discovered vulcanisation (treatment of rubber with sulphur and subsequent heating) in 1839, it was possible to produce a new kind of rubber from natural rubber – one that was elastic and watertight and resisted breakage. Vulcanisation creates a large molecular structure from the individual macromolecules in the rubber. The invention of hot vulcanisation was optimised by Thomas Hancock, who has already been mentioned above, so that it was ready for practical use in 1843. Hancock filed a patent application for vulcanisation before Goodyear, who did not have enough money to do this. The latter was, however, granted priority in a patent dispute in 1855. In the same year, Goodyear presented the first rubber condom, although it was not marketed until 1870. It was sealed together, i.e. it had a longitudinal seam, and had walls that were one to two millimetres thick (current standard: three to eight hundredths of a millimetre; human skin is ten times thicker).
Meyer’s Conversations-Lexicon finally breaks its silence and includes condoms for the first time in its 1851 edition. The entry is, however, full of moral outrage: “Condom, a sheath made of goldbeater’s skin (= the outer membrane of appendices), which lechers pull over the male member before intercourse to prevent fertilisation and, presumably, to make venereal infection impossible, one of the ingenious inventions these depraved times have led to, although morally upright people hold them in contempt and hardly even know their name.”
In 1870, the Scottish chemist Charles MacIntosh (1766 – 1843), who was already manufacturing rubberised raincoats, started industrial production of condoms for the international market.
Contraceptives were banned in the USA in 1873. Condoms were not affected by this ban, but they had to be marketed with the instruction “For disease protection only”.
The rubber goods manufacturer Julius Fromm (1883 – 1945) from Berlin perfected the production of condoms in 1912 by dipping glass moulds into the liquid raw latex solution. This immersion process enabled extremely thin condoms to be produced without a seam and with a reservoir to collect the semen.
In the First World War (1914 – 1918), the German, French and British Armies supplied their soldiers with condoms. US soldiers were not given any – and suffered far more frequently from sexually transmitted diseases.
In 1916, Fromm presented machine-manufactured condoms of the kind used today for the first time and as a result created the first condom brand “Fromms Act”. The first factories were located in Berlin-Köpenick and -Friedrichshagen and reached daily production levels of 150 000 condoms.
In 1922, the Minister of Justice, Gustav Radbruch (1878 – 1949; SPD) issued a ban on the advertising and sale of contraceptives in Germany. There had already been such a ban in France since 1920.
The first latex condom was sold in the USA in 1929.
In 1938, the US health authorities FDA (Food and Drug Administration) introduced quality control procedures for condoms for the first time, in order to reduce the high failure rate (about 60 per cent at the time).
The electric test procedure for condoms was established in 1951. Before this, there were only “water burst tests”.
In 1959, advertising for condoms and the sale of them in vending machines were prohibited by law “in public places, on paths and roads” (§ 41a of the German Trade Regulation Act) at the instigation of Franz-Josef Wuermeling (1900 – 1986; CDU), who was the German Minister for Family Affairs at the time. The Federal Court of Justice lifted the ban in 1970.
Condoms that incorporated lubricants containing silicone and were more pleasant to use were launched on the market for the first time in 1960.
The coating of condoms with substances that kill sperm (spermicides) was possible for the first time in 1968.
The first German quality mark for condoms, the dlf quality mark issued by the German Latex Research and Development Association, was created in 1981.
“Femidom”, the condom for women, was introduced in 1992.
The European test standard EN 600 replaced the German industrial standard DIN 58993 in 1995; condoms were now allowed to have a maximum leakage rate of 0.25 per cent (previously 1.4 per cent). The international standard EN ISO 4074 has been in force since 2002; condoms printed with “EN 600” were taken out of circulation by 2004.
Use of condoms has been mandatory for female and male prostitutes and their clients in Bavaria since 16. May 2001 (§ 6 of the regulation for the prevention of contagious diseases).
As AIDS developed, sales of condoms in Germany increased by 59 million to a total of 155 million between 1986 and 1987. Condom sales in Germany rose to 173 million by 1993 and to 215 million by 2009.
At the present time, condoms are the only form of protection against both unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Although the pill is about ten times more reliable as a contraceptive, it does not provide protection against AIDS, syphilis etc. Today condoms are available in many different colours, with studs or ribs, odour-free or incorporating aromatic substances (introduced for the first time exactly 30 years ago). GD