Once in a while you come across a book that is so original, so persuasive, so meticulously researched and documented that it overrides some of your most taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs. Devices and Desires is such a work. The author, Andrea Tone, associate professor of history at Georgia Tech, belongs to a small band of new historians who are reassessing the lives of nineteenth-century women through attention to their personal (and I do mean very personal) health aids. An earlier example would be Rachel Maines’s The Technology of Orgasm, published by Johns Hopkins in 1999, which describes and illustrates the 1880s-style vibrators that doctors freely used in their offices–and women in their homes–for relief of pelvic congestion and the female “hysteria” associated with it.
Devices and Desires opens in 1873 when, through the machinations of Anthony Comstock–star agent for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV)–Congress unexpectedly voted to make contraceptives illegal. Many Americans disapproved, and when the news reached Ireland, George Bernard Shaw coined the word “Comstockery,” which, he predicted, would become “the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States.”
It may be that talk of the new law made contraception known to some folks who had never heard of it before. It may be that, as with Eve’s forbidden fruit, the ban made pregnancy prevention seem more alluring or naughty–or more fun. Then too, the “bootleg” business environment that ensued was relatively welcoming to entrepreneurial immigrants, smart single mothers with families to support and other ambitious “outsiders.” “As with condoms,” Tone observes, “creating diaphragms was easy and inexpensive, an ideal venture for those with little money and a penchant for risk.” In any case the business of contraception flourished in the Comstock era, embracing scores of diverse devices and spermicides for women and men. Hundreds if not thousands of small entrepreneurs and distributors profited, as did as an impressive handful of industrial giants, including the arch-hypocrite Samuel Colgate, millionaire heir to the New Jersey-based soap firm, who served as president of Comstock’s NYSSV while openly promoting Vaseline to “destroy spermatozoa, without injury to the uterus or vagina.”
Other well-established companies that made, distributed and freely advertised contraceptives–ranging from intrauterine devices (IUDs) to vaginal pessaries (appliances intended to support the uterus that could also prevent the passage of sperm), and from douching syringes, suppositories and foaming tablets to sponges and male caps–included some still familiar names: B.F. Goodrich, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Goodyear. “The B.F. Goodrich Company,” notes Tone, “manufactured three soft-rubber IUDs–one pear- and two donut-shaped, each available in five sizes–and twelve hard-rubber models. Two of the latter models were one-size-fits-all rings.” Physicians were leading players in the commercialization of mass-produced IUDs–constructed from rubber, metal, ivory and even wood–although some models were promoted for do-it-yourself insertion.