It's summer, and you're (hopefully) going to get some game. It starts at a bar or a BBQ or your living room—wherever you go to meet a private dance-partner. You get ready to get sweaty, and then, the grab for contraception: "Honey/dude/whatsyourname, can you grab the fish bladder?" Or maybe it's: "Got your reusable sheep intestine?"
If this were the early 18th century, your sex life would totally be like that…kinda. Don't judge. There weren't a lot of options!
Even that was better than the hookup scene in Ancient Egypt. As far back as 1305 BCE, the earliest known condom users sported sheaths made out of linen. At the time they were a sign of social status, still used for protection—but from bugs and tropical diseases rather than pregnancy and STIs. Strangely, they were worn to promote fertility.
By the 16th century, the Italian anatomist (and discoverer of the fallopian tubes) Gabriel Fallopius wrote about a linen setup that you'd dip in boiled-down herbs in an attempt to ward off syphilis.
So considering their scratchy ancestors, animal intestines were not a move of desperation. At the time, they were the forefront in condom tech—and the first time such sheaths were used to prevent pregnancy. A cheap model meant you were in for unprocessed intestines, either pasted or sewn together. If you were willing to shell out more, the cutting edge in manufacturing was a sperm-catcher subjected to repeated soaking, stretching and drying.
Because European slaughterhouses came across a lot of intestinal sheaths, they had plenty to sell—both at home and in cities abroad. In fact, before the mid-1800s, the majority of condoms in the United States were imported from Europe.
Those not into the intimate imports could cure their own. A guide published in Philadelphia in 1844 called for soaking, turning, and inflating animal innards at home. Once the material was prepared, you chopped it to the required length and added a string at the base for better hold. Feeling fancy? There were instructions to give it a scent and polish, too.
Charles Goodyear is responsible for elevating condoms beyond offal by figuring out how to make rubber more stable. His vulcanization process took a material that melted in the heat and cracked in the cold and transformed it into a material that was air and water proof-and other-stuff-proof, too.
While rubber triggered the big important switch from animal to plant, latex is the material that made condoms modern by giving them a less obvious entrance. In fact the quest for a thinner layer of protection-while still maintaining strength, mind you-is a design challenge with no foreseeable end. "We'll keep going as long as we can," says Matthew Groskorth, who works in sexual wellness and innovation at Lifestyles condoms. "A few decades ago, condoms were around 0.1 mm thick. Today, LifeStyles thinnest condoms are around .04 mm."
Another area of constant development is in the shape. While condoms come with ridges and in different flavors, a more tailored glove was once also on LifeStyles' development table. Instead of a shaping just a straight shaft, for a while they thought about creating a condom with a more mushroom-like profile, allowing for more space at the tip. Although development was going well, it was having trouble passing the air inflation test, where spot-checked condoms are blown up by machine to test for elasticity and strength. The design had a weak point where the shaft met the cap, so the design was scrapped.
While regulatory requirements keep condom design on the straight and narrow, materials have continued to improve. Amid concerns that the proteins in latex could trigger an allergic reaction in some uncomfortable places, LifeStyles and others started striving for an alternative that was easier on the body. It took ten years of R & D followed by some large governmental hoops to get it to market, but just a couple of years ago LifeStyles released their condom made from polyisoprene, a synthetic latex. Their so-called Skyn line was developed to be even softer than the latex originals.
Finally, 300 years after fish bladders entered our sex lives, we're able to reach for our nightstands confidently, knowing that what we put on was not once alive.
Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.
Drawing Board is where we explore the amazing origins of everyday objects. Know an interesting story? Tip us off at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: "Idea for drawing board," and we'll investigate. In fact that's where this story idea came from. Thanks, Chris Johnson!
Archival image from patent #824634