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A Brief History of Birth Control

A Brief History of Birth Control Image
Written by vhigueras
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It’s a pretty safe bet that humans have been trying to figure out birth control since caveman days. We thought you might be fascinated by some of the weird methods people have tried in pursuit of having more sex and fewer babies, and how we got to the world of safe and reliable birth control we enjoy today.

9,000 to 18,000 BC

It’s believed that prehistoric women use notches on bones to track their cycles and take charge of their fertility — at least, that’s one interpretation of the Ishango Bone, an ancient tool found in Central Africa which some archeologists believe was for tracking lunar cycles.

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1550 BC

Ancient Egyptian women use dates, honey, and acacia to make a contraceptive suppository. The acacia works as a spermicide, and it’s still found in some contemporary spermicides.

600 BC

Ancient Greeks use a silphium tincture as an oral birth control method. This method endures for close to seven centuries until the plant becomes extinct from overharvesting. Some historians believe that the shape of the silphium seed pod was the inspiration for the classic heart shape.

400s to 1700s AD

Many women who knew about herbal contraceptives were accused of witchcraft and even put to death. During these centuries, it’s believed that a lot of knowledge about herbal birth control methods was destroyed, and for the most part, men took the reins of researching, creating, and manufacturing birth control.


Made of animal intestines, oiled paper, horns, and even tortoise shells, glans condoms which just covered the tip of the penis became popular in affluent Asian circles. These condoms weren’t that effective and they sometimes became lodged in women.


Men in Italy use linen sheaths soaked in herbal tonics as primitive condoms.


The renowned Venetian romantic Casanova experiments with a variety of birth control methods, including using lemon peels as cervical caps and sheep bladders as condoms.


American doctor Charles Knowlton announces that douching is an effective post-sex contraception method. In spite of ineffectiveness and inconvenience for women, the douche remains a popular birth control method for at least a century.


French doctor Maurice Eguiser develops a porcelain pump and rubber hose for douching.


Friedrich Wilde, a German gynecologist, creates the modern version of the cervical cap by making rubber molds of his patients’ cervixes.


Charles Goodyear creates the technology to vulcanize rubber and makes rubber condoms, IUDs, douching syringes, and womb veils, a barrier method that eventually lead to cervical caps and diaphragms.

1840s to 1890s

In America, many states pass laws to ban or limit contraception.


Congress passes the Comstock Act, preventing the trade and circulation of obscene literature including once-popular catalogues featuring contraceptives and educational materials about abortions. Punishment for breaking this law was up to five years of imprisonment with hard labor and fines of up to $2,000. Parts of the law were changed after the Roe V. Wade ruling in 1973, but the law was not entirely eliminated until 1997.


Women begin using the diaphragm with spermicides as a birth control method. From this time period through the mid-1900s, women get diaphragms through mail order and door-to-door sales companies. As laws make contraceptives harder to obtain in the United States, many women order diaphragms from Europe. Now, less than a third of one percent of women use this method.

1914 to 1918

During World War I, so many soldiers get venereal diseases from prostitutes that the military begins issuing condoms. When these men get home, they still want safe sex, and in response drug stores begin selling condoms. Labels declare they are for stopping the spread of disease, rather than for preventing pregnancy.


Eager to put birth control into the hands of women, Margaret Sanger opens the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Nine days later, she gets arrested and the clinic is forcibly shut down.


Sanger forms the American Birth Control League to open clinics to help women take charge of their fertility. Eventually, this league becomes the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.


The U.S. birth rate drops by half. Couples use a combination of condoms, the “rhythm method”, “pulling out”, and diaphragms.

1930 to 1960

Women use Lysol as a feminine “hygiene” and birth control product. The company uses testimonials from European doctors in its marketing, but upon investigation, the American Medical Association finds that these experts don’t exist.


Researchers around the world work on studying hormonal birth control methods, and chemist Carl Djerassi develops a progesterone pill in Mexico City by synthesizing hormones from yams. However, he isn’t able to test or distribute his invention.


In Massachusetts, researchers John Rock and Gregory Pincus test the first birth control pill on 50 women. By doing studies on animals, Pincus knew progesterone could stop ovulation. The activist Margaret Sanger had actually reached out to Pincus for help, while the heiress and biologist Katherine McCormick bankrolled the research.


Researchers carry out more clinical trials on the pill in Puerto Rico and, ignoring some serious side effects, call the pill 100% effective. Researchers discover medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA). Now commonly sold under the name of Depo-Provera, this medication is on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of most essential medicines needed in a health system.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the pill for heavy menstrual periods, and women suddenly flock to their doctors with this complaint.


Although half a million women are already taking the pill for various therapeutic purposes, the FDA finally approves Enovid for use as a birth control pill.


In the United States, 1.2 million women take the pill.


 2.3 million American women now take the pill.


The pill is illegal in eight states including Connecticut which has the most stringent laws.


Five years after approval, the pill becomes the most popular birth control method in the country with more than 6.5 million women using it. That same year, a challenge to the Connecticut ban on contraceptives goes to the Supreme Court, and in Griswold V. Connecticut, the court rules that marital privacy gives married couples the constitutional right to use birth control. Unmarried women still face a lot of birth control bans.


“The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill” by Barbara Seaman highlights health risks associated with the pill, including strokes, heart attacks, blood clots, and weight gain.


In the early part of this decade Hugh J. Davis and Irwin Lerner develop an IUD called the Dalkon Shield. Featuring five plastic prongs in a shield-shape design, this device contains small amounts of copper that work as a spermicide and a string which allows doctors to remove the device from the patient’s uterus. 


The Dalkon Shield enters the marketplace. Advertisers promote this as a safe alternative to the pill, and within three years, over 2.2 million women are using the Dalkon Shield. However, many women report issues including infections, miscarriages, and even death. Ultimately, researchers find that the string’s large size allows infection and bacteria to enter the uterus.


After several lawsuits and studies illustrating the risks of the Dalkon Shield, the A.H. Robins Company stops manufacturing it, but the company fails to let current users know they should remove their Dalkon IUDs. This fiasco taints the image of IUDs for the next several decades.


“Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America” by Linda Gordon gets published as the definitive history of birth control.


Concerns of health risks fuel a 24% drop in the popularity of the pill.


New lower-dose pills enter the market, and FDA studies show a reduced risk of ovarian cancer, iron deficiency, and pelvic inflammatory diseases for women on the pill. At this point, more than 10.5 million American women use the pill. Early birth control pills used about 10 mg of progesterone, while modern pills only have half to a quarter of that amount. The copper IUD enters the marketplace, allowing women to prevent pregnancy for up to 10 years.


The FDA approves emergency contraception, and for the first time, women can prevent pregnancy by taking a pill up to 72 hours after sex.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules that employer-sponsored health insurance must cover prescription contraception.

2000 to 2002

The FDA approves Ortho Evra, a birth control patch which slowly releases hormones into a woman’s body, freeing her from the need to remember a daily pill. The FDA also approves the NuvaRing a small ring that releases hormones into the vagina for three weeks; Lunelle, a hormone that gets injected monthly; and Mirena, a hormonal IUD that works for five years.


The birth control pill Seasonale enters the market, combining contraception with the option to limit menstruation to four times per year.


About 100 million women around the world are on the pill.


There are more than a million prescriptions for Depo Provera (a birth control shot) in the United States alone.


In the United States, approximately 99% of women from age 15 to 44 have used birth control, and 60% report using contraception on a regular basis. About three-quarters of women use non-permanent birth control methods such as pills, IUDs, patches, and injections, 22% rely on female sterilization, and 7% use male sterilization.

Now, women have thousands of years of research and experience backing their choices, and they have access to a wide variety of effective birth control methods. Want birth control delivered to your door? Then, contact us today over the phone or through our app, to talk about your birth control needs. At Nurx, we offer non-judgmental healthcare with honesty and communication as our cornerstones.

About the Author

With over a decade of content writing experience, Kari can write about any topic under the sun, and she loves helping people make informed choices about how to be safe while expressing their sexuality.

This blog pro­vides infor­ma­tion about telemed­i­cine, health and related sub­jects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be con­strued as a substitute for, med­ical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or per­son with a med­ical con­cern should con­sult with an appropriately-licensed physi­cian or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes. The views expressed herein are not sponsored by and do not represent the opinions of Nurx™.

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