The form of birth control with the most nicknames is also one of the oldest types of contraception. Variously called a rubber, prophylactic, raincoat, hat, balloon or French letter, the condom obtained one of its many monikers from the world-famous lover Casanova, who dubbed it the "English overcoat." But long before Casanova, people around the world used condoms to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and disease.
A drawing that depicts a man using a condom during sexual intercourse, believed to be 10,000 to 15,000 years old, was discovered on the wall of a cave in France, according to Planned Parenthood. A tale recounted by the Greco-Roman writer Antoninus Libralis circa 150 A.D. described a female condom being used to prevent pregnancy, suggesting condoms may have been used in that period. And a 3,000-year-old Egyptian drawing shows a man wearing a condom, but it's not clear if he was using it for sex or for ritualistic reasons. Penis sheaths were used in prehistoric times for many reasons not related to sex: protection during battle, decoration, a sign of social rank and protection from insect bites or evil spirits. But the first factual, written description of a condom didn't appear until the mid-1500s.
Gabriele Falloppio (1523-1562) was an Italian surgeon and anatomist. In an article published two years after his death, he provided the first written description of a condom, although he did not use that word. He described a linen sheath that he invented to prevent the spread of syphilis. Proudly attesting to his research methods and the condom's effectiveness, Falloppio wrote, "I tried the experiment on 1,100 men, and I call immortal God to witness that not one of them was infected." The sheath was held in place with a pink ribbon to make it more appealing to women.
Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (1725-1798) was a powerful intellectual figure whose many accomplishments include translating the Iliad into his Venetian dialect, but he is most widely known for his erotic memoirs, which were long banned for their frank discussion of sexuality. In his memoirs, Casanova wrote about condoms, but he was not fond of them. He used them primarily to prevent the spread of disease, as well as a source of amusement for his lady friends: a picture from his memoir depicts Casanova, surrounded by women, inflating a condom to test for holes. Although the word "condom" first appeared in print in the early 18th century, its origin is unknown, according to William E. Kruck of the University of North Carolina.
Game Changer: Vulcanized Rubber
Many materials have been used to fabricate condoms. Condoms were originally made from the intestines of sheep, calves and goats, according to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Skin condoms, as they are known, are still used and transmit sensation and body heat. In China, condoms were made of oiled silk paper, and the Japanese wore hard sheaths made from tortoiseshell, horn or fine leather. Condoms made from animal intestine were expensive, putting them out of reach for many people. But after 1844 vulcanized rubber began to be used to make lower-priced, mass-produced condoms more widely available. By the end of the century they were being made without seams. Liquid latex was introduced in the 1930s, allowing for the creation of stronger condoms with a longer shelf life.
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