International Condom Day: A brief history of rubbers

Feb 13, 2023 02:42 PM IST

Condoms are pretty great, preventing both diseases and unwanted pregnancies. They were first used in 3000 BC. Ancient Egyptians color-coded theirs while the Romans supposedly made them from the muscles of fallen enemies.

No one can agree on what should be considered humanity's greatest invention. The wheel? Antibiotics? The dishwasher? All valid contenders. But today we are looking at another scientific innovation that, although perhaps innocuous, has transformed life on Earth: The condom. (Also read: Ahead of Valentine’s Day, this Asian country to distribute 95 million free condoms)

Find out everything you always wanted to know about condoms!(Oleksandr Latkun/Zoonar/picture alliance)
Find out everything you always wanted to know about condoms!(Oleksandr Latkun/Zoonar/picture alliance)

Thanks to these little latex sleeves, humans can have sex without passing on STDs or getting (someone) pregnant. The protection isn't 100% guaranteed ― according to Planned Parenthood in the US, condoms are 98% effective at preventing pregnancy when used perfectly. Since humans are not, in fact, perfect, in reality the contraceptive is about 87% effective ― around 13 of 100 people who use condoms as their only birth control will conceive.

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Still! Condoms have saved lives and granted women autonomy in periods of history when getting pregnant out of wedlock threatened them with pariah status, if not worse. Let's dive into the history of happy hats, as the Internet calls them.

Condoms to protect against snakes down there

The first mention of a condom-like device dates back to 3000 BC. King Minos ― whom you might remember for his giant labyrinth containing a minotaur at its center ― was said to use a goat bladder to protect his sexual partners from contracting a rather unusual sexual disease: Legend has it, Minos' semen contained serpents and scorpions.

Sounds unpleasant indeed. Some accounts claim that Minos sheathed his penis with the goat bladder, while others say his wife Pasiphae inserted it into her vagina in order to prevent those pesky animals from biting her private parts. Either way, it's the earliest account of a barrier device used to prevent what we today would consider a sexually transmitted disease.

Class-coded condoms

The ancient Egyptians used protection as well. Archaeologist Howard Carter and his team found a condom in Tutankhamun's tomb containing samples of the pharaoh's DNA. It was made of fine linen soaked in olive oil and had been attached to a string that, the researchers believe, would have tied around his waist. They dated it to around 1350 BC.

Condoms weren't just for the god-kings, either. Other Egyptians used them too ― but only in the color assigned to their social class. No chance at fooling your date into believing you were part of the pharaoh's inner circle when the color of your condom made you out to be a lowly farmer.

In ancient Rome, condoms were also made of linen, as well as intestines or bladders of sheep and goats. The Romans did not wrap up as a way to prevent conception ― rather, the main motivator was stopping the spread of diseases like syphilis. They were also said to make condoms out of muscle tissue from men they killed in battle, "but no hard evidence for this exists," the authors of a study published in the Indian Journal of Urology point out.

The rubber revolution

There are various theories about where the term "condom" originated. It could go back to the Latin word "condus," meaning receptacle or vessel, or to the Persian word "kemdu," which refers to a long piece of animal intestine used for storage, the authors of the Indian study point out.

In their book "Contraception through the ages" from 1964, B.E. Finch and Hugh Green write that the name most likely comes from a physician at the court of King Charles II, who ruled in the 17th century. Charles was, as the story goes, upset about the growing number of his illegitimate children. So Dr. Condom (yes, that was his actual name) did some research. He came up with a sheath made from softened lamb intestine and advised his master to wear it during sex to finally stop impregnating his mistresses.

We have to thank American inventor Charles Goodyear for the first version of the modern condom as we know it today. In the mid-1800s, he discovered the process of vulcanization, in which natural rubber is heated up together with sulfur to form a material that is more malleable, durable and elastic. By 1860, condoms were produced on a large scale. They were expensive, but back in the day, men were told to clean and then reuse them. (Condoms today are strictly one-use only!)

Second-most popular contraception method globally

The invention of latex in the 1920s revolutionized the condom industry. Today's latex condoms can be stretched to up to eight times their original size before they rip and also come pre-lubricated, ribbed or flavored.

According to a UN study, the male condom was the second-most common contraceptive method used worldwide in 2019, beaten only by female sterilization. In 2019, 21% of people using contraception used a condom ― some 189 million users that year.

Condoms are also vital in preventing the spread of HIV. According to a meta analysis conducted by the Center for AIDS Intervention Research in the US, when used consistently and correctly, condoms are 90% to 95% effective in protecting against HIV.

International Condom Day, which is celebrated on February 13, was established by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a US-based non-profit founded in 1987 in response to the AIDS epidemic. The organization celebrates the holiday by handing out free condoms.

Edited by: Clare Roth

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