From Animal Skin to Latex: The Origin of Condoms

It goes by many names – jimmy hat, love glove, French letter, nightcap, and oh so much more! But the moniker familiar to the majority is ‘Condoms’ – a reticent necessity found on most people and the most common contraceptive to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. 

Over the centuries, condoms have become a multi-billion dollar industry and see no signs of recession. The latex condoms we know of now are enhanced and advanced incessantly for pleasure purposes. There are glow-in-the-dark condoms, flavored condoms (some regular, some obscure flavors such as weed, scotch whiskey, chicken tikka masala), edible external condoms, studded or textured external condoms amongst the list of eccentric types one can find now. But before landing on these, this contraception went through a curious history of evolution. 

Animal Skins and Organs – The Inception of Condoms

The pre-latex era of condoms began with fashioning various parts of an animal into protective gear. 

It is estimated that condoms are at least 12,000-15,000 years old. French cave paintings of that time depict a man wearing a protective covering on his genitals during sexual intercourse. A similar depiction could be found in Egypt 3000 years ago. Although the purpose for its usage remains unclear, it could have been for sexual or ritualistic needs. 

One of the earliest representations of condoms dates back to 3000 BC in ancient Greece. Greek Mythology mentions King Minos of Crete of having “serpents and scorpions” in his semen. This caused the demise of his mistress, and he required a protective measure to protect his wife. For this pursuit, he resorted to using goat’s bladder as a sheath, placed either in the woman’s vagina or worn by Minos himself. 

Sheaths were also used by ancient Egyptians in 1000 CE to prevent bilharzia – a disease affecting the urinary tract or the intestines. Men wore colored sheaths to distinguish their social status. 

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Acquired from MTV.

Meanwhile, in Asia, Japan and China utilized condoms before the 15th century. People of certain Japanese communities used tortoise shells and animal horns, whereas, in China, it was made from oiled silk paper or lamb intestine. It is said that these alternatives only served to cover the tip of the male genitalia.

Ancient Romans donned animal bladders and linens to protect them from venereal diseases. They were also known to use the muscles of their slain combatants as condoms. 

The oldest surviving condom was found in a medieval lavatory defining condoms used by citizens of the UK in the 17th century. They were made of fish and animal intestine dating back to 1640. Condoms were rampantly used in the UK to prevent pregnancy and contracting syphilis.

The use of Linens came into the picture during the unbridled spread of syphilis in Europe around the 16th century. Gabriele Falloppio, the namesake of Fallopian tubes – credited for finding its function, introduced an advanced version of condoms made from linen to stop the endemic. These sheaths were made from chemically soaked linen made to cover the head of the penis and tied in place at the base with a ribbon.

Rubber, Latex, Condoms We Know Now

Condoms became widespread by the 18th century. The market was lucrative, and demand surged steadily. It was revolutionized with the invention of rubber vulcanization in 1839, thanks to Charles Goodyear. By 1850, rubber condoms overtook animal products. This saw the onset of large-scale production, which led to having cheaper and reusable condoms. 

“The first major turning point in condom production, use, and distribution occurred in the latter half of the 19th century. The Goodyear company revolutionized the rubber industry and began mass-producing the world’s first rubber condom,” said history researcher Joe Gillard.

The revolution was completed in the 1920s when latex condoms came into the picture. Its result yielded stronger, thinner, more elastic, tighter, and cheaper condoms, the ones we are familiar with today. This billion-dollar industry has not looked back since! From Durex introducing the first-ever flavored condoms in 1995 to the more recent crowdfunded HEX condoms from LELO, described as “the first major condom innovation in 70 years”, engineered to reduce wear and tear and maximize sensitivity, the trajectory of a commodity as diminutive as condoms remain influential.


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Feature Image via Freepik.

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