The history of condoms goes way, way back. French cave paintings depicting what is thought to be ancient prophylactics have been found that are believed to be between 12,000 – 15,000 years old. Egyptian hieroglyphs dating back 3,000 are also thought to depict the prehistoric “rubbers” (although they would’ve been made of sheepskin at the time.)
The history of condoms in America, however, is far more recent. Not as recent as people have believed, however, thanks to a startling discovery from a museum curator for the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, otherwise known as Mac Lab.
Sara Rivers-Cofield was putting together an exhibit based on the time travel TV series Outlander when she came upon a startling discovery. Rivers-Cofield was digging through a cabinet of bric-a-brac and, well, garbage from an abandoned well in colonial Maryland, looking for objects to simulate Scottish goods from the 1740s. The English goods from the colonies around that time would have been comparable to what would have been found in Scotland.
Rivers-Cofield was looking for a ribbon, drawing her to a cabinet full of organic goods from a slave-owning plantation just south of Washington, D.C., known as Oxon Hill Manor. The well was used for trash between the years of 1720 and 1750. When it was later excavated in the 1980s, a treasure trove of household items from that era was unearthed. Among them were bottle corks, broken porcelain dishes, tobacco leaves, grass clippers, pieces of wooden musical instruments, cloth, and silk fragments. Among this haul, Rivers-Cofield came across a small, sheath-like object, labeled only as ‘Paper?’ Rivers-Cofield immediately thought otherwise.
Speaking of how she made the leap to decide this object was a condom, Rivers-Cofield told the website, Mental Floss, “In terms of its dimensions, it’s clearly the right shape and everything. I had seen 18th-century references to condoms, so I knew it was a possibility. My guess would be that whoever originally treated the artifact was probably reminded of a condom, too, but maybe they didn’t know [condoms] could date back to the 18th century. The artifact just needed someone who had seen those period references to make the connection.”
The Maryland find is hardly the oldest condom in history. It’s not even the oldest existing condom, which dates from 1640 and was discovered in Lund, Sweden. The Swedish condom – made from sheepskin – was discovered with an instruction manual written in Latin, giving insight into how condoms were used and perceived, historically. Instructions were given to wash the condom in warm milk, to prevent disease. This was the only way the Lund condom was thought to protect from diseases, as condoms were merely thought of as a way to protect from pregnancy in the 17th Century.
The Maryland sheepskin sheath is noteworthy as condoms were not believed to have been used in the United States until the early 1800s when they would become more widely available and less expensive due to an increase in rubber production. Before that, birth control was believed to have been the woman’s responsibility.
It’s not that condoms didn’t exist in the United States before the 1800s, it’s just unlikely to find them. Condoms tend to be made from a biodegradable material like sheepskin or linen. Rivers-Cofield believes her find was more of a fluke of a good luck than anything else.
Condoms were flourishing in Europe by this time, however. They got their first medical mention in a book on gonorrhea by physician William Cockburn. They were sold in pubs, barber shops, and brothels. In 1705, the 2nd Duke Of Argyll John Campbell tried to get them banned in Britain. He infamously brought a linen condom to the floor of parliament, brandishing the contraceptive like a white flag while decrying the “debauching of a great number of Ladies of quality, and young gentlewomen.”
Some of the history’s most famous lovers have spoken passionately, and extensively, about their love of condoms. The writer James Boswell has written about using “armor” during his visits with London’s “women of the night.” The legendary Giacomo Casanova speaks of enjoying “English Raincoats” during his infamous conquests and even bragged about finding condoms in the drawer of a French nun he was “visiting.”
It’s not the fact that an 18th Century condom was unearthed but, rather, that it was found in America. Unsurprisingly, given the United States’ puritanical origins, condoms wouldn’t meet widespread acceptance in the United States until the mid-1800s. While it may have been couched in a religious rhetoric, birth control was frowned upon for a variety of very pragmatic reasons. Life in Puritanical America was severe, with settlers frequently dying due to starvation, exposure, illness, and war. Lots of children were the only way to ensure that the new colonies would flourish. Tellingly, it wasn’t until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, when vast swathes of the population would move to the city to work in factories when contraception would begin to be applauded.
The Addisons – the plantation owners of Oxon Hill Manor – would’ve been wealthy enough to order their condoms from London. Sara Rivers-Cofield’s discovery doesn’t redefine the timeline of condoms in America. It does, however, offer an insightful look into the hidden side of Puritanical sexuality. Looks like people were having sex for more than just procreation, even back then.
“I don’t think we’re going to figure out all of the secrets of it because it’s a private object. I would presume that because it is a private object that this would have surreptitiously been thrown in the well,” says Rivers-Cofield. “But again, I don’t really know how open people there were about sexuality. Is it possible that the women were like, ‘Listen I need a break from the kids for a little bit?’ There are so many possibilities.”