Britain in the eighteenth century witnessed “a release of the libido” (Lawrence Stone, 327) due to the Enlightenment’s idea of the pursuit of happiness which made of sexual expression, pleasure and passion essential elements of life. During the eighteenth century contraception was mostly used by the aristocracy and the urban elite (Lawrence Stone, 263) and just like today contraceptive methods could be used by women and men, but did both sexes used contraceptives for the same reasons?
In the eighteenth century, women could have a lot of children – Queen Charlotte for instance had fifteen children with her husband King George III – and “the interval between births was between twenty-four and thirty months” (Lawrence Stone, 52). These repeated pregnancies were very dangerous and many women died giving birth. One of the methods used to space out pregnancies was breast-feeding. Indeed lactation has a contraceptive effect called “lactational amenorrhea” (Robert A. Hatcher and others, 407) because when breast-feeding, a woman has no menstruation and the ovulation is postponed which makes her infertile for some months. Nowadays this method is still used by some women but it is not as popular as it was during the eighteenth century as women are less aware of it and as it is a very restricting way of contraception. Well-fed women could profit from this temporary infertility for about six months and women suffering from malnutrition were infertile for about eighteen months (Lawrence Stone, 52). Moreover this post-natal infertility made it more difficult for women to conceive once the lactational amenorrhea was over which made of this birth control method a very popular one in the eighteenth century. Women were advised to breast-feed themselves their children by doctors so that breast-feeding became a sort of fashion (Lawrence Stone, 248). As we can see on the satirical print below, wealthy women no longer gave their children to wet nurses so that they could be seen topless and feeding their babies in their richest dresses which made of breastfeeding a more fashionable than maternal behavior.
Women could also buy medicines sold on London Markets; these recipes could be used as a contraceptive or for abortive purposes. But these methods were used by a minority only.
“If the party … would not conceive, take one paper of powders in a glass of warm ale, every morning after the man has been with her, and shall be out of danger.”
(Lawrence Stone, 266)
The will to space out pregnancies came also from men who wanted to prevent their wives from suffering or dying while giving birth and new sexual behaviors were adopted. Coitus interruptus, also called withdrawal, was the most used method. This method consisted of the withdrawal of the husband before ejaculation and is said to depend on “extraordinary measures of self-control” (Lawrence Stone, 262). It is even referred to in the Bible:
“And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.”
(Genesis 38: 8-10)
Though in the Bible Onan is punished for practicing coitus interruptus, in the eighteenth century because of “the collapse of moral Puritanism” which was at the origin of the released libido, the Bible had lost some of its strength and withdrawal was no longer seen as a sin (Lawrence Stone, 263). However the method is not completely effective. Indeed some semen always escapes from the Cowper’s glands before ejaculation, so that the risk of pregnancy still exists (Vern L. Bullough, 74).
One of the reasons for the development of contraception was economic, for upper classes had larger families than lower classes and the elite wanted to reduce births because of the cost of raising a child. The upper classes had enough money to raise their children but at the time a more child-orientated society developed and families started to limit the number of births because education was expensive and children did not always live long. The Reverend Ralph Josselin spent one third of is £160 a year on the education of his ten children but only five of them still lived when their parents died (Lawrence Stone, 264). It was to prevent this waste of money than families chose to have fewer children.
Other popular contraceptive methods called barrier devices were used by the upper classes. Among them were condoms. As we can see on the following picture, eighteenth century condoms were made of “sheep gut and were secured to the wearer at the base with a red ribbon, which was tied around the scrotum” (Lawrence Stone, 334).
In the eighteenth century condoms were not easy to purchase as they were mostly sold in big European Cities such as Paris and London (Lawrence Stone, 334). These devices were not only used as a contraceptive method, they actually were associated with vice because they were mostly used for “extra-marital affairs”, men used them as a protection against venereal deseases. In his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Francis Grose defined “cundum” as:
“The dried gut of the sheep, worn by men in the act of coition, to prevent venereal infection”. (Francis Grose)
And in 1776, a London advertizer described condoms as “implements of safety which secure the health of my customers” (Lawrence Stone, 266). Condoms could be used several times and men only had to wash them after each use (Vern L. Bullough, 82). On the caricature below we can see a women in a “condom warehouse” is blowing up a condom to make sure that it is not damaged and a man who appears to be a clergyman is blessing the newly frabricated condoms. A condom trade greatly developed in London during the century and was mostly owned by “a matron of the name of Philips” (Francis Grose) and Mrs Perkins (H. Youssef, 227).
(Quality control in condom warehouse, 1744)
The Scottish lawyer James Boswell frequently had to use condoms because of his libertine way of life. His London Journal is the richest source of information on sex in the eighteenth century:
“At the bottom of the Haymarket I picked up a strong, jolly young damsel, and taking her under the arm I conducted her to Westminster Bridge, and then in armour complete did I engage her upon this noble edifice. The whim of doing it there with the Thames rolling below us amused me much.” (James Boswell, 255)
“…so I sallied the Streets and just at the bottom of our own, I picked up a fresh agreable young Girl called Alice Gibbs. We went down a lane to a snug place; and I took out my armour, but she begged that I might not put it on, as the sport was much pleasanter without it; and as she was quite safe. I was so rash as to trust her, and had a very agreable congress.” (James Boswell, 262)
He often met with prostitutes such as the “jolly young damsel” of the first extract and the “Alice Gibbs” of the second and he used these devices which he called “amour” to be protected from veneral deseases.
“BOSWELL. Madam, I have had no connection with any woman but you these two months. I was with my surgeon this morning, who declared I had got a strong infection, and that she from whom I had it could not be ignorant of it”.
(James Boswell, 149)
In 1763 James Boswell had a relationship with an actress named Louisa who gave him one of the numerous venereal diseases he had during the course of his life. Boswell did not think it was usefull to wear an “armour” with her but when he discovered she had transmitted him a desease she told she actualy had one three years before but that she no longer had any symptoms for several months and thought that it was cured.
Contraception in the eighteenth century became more common but mainly in families from the elite. People needed contraceptive methods to trim the size of families. To preserve their health women were advised not to have too many children and to space out pregnancies as much as possible. Men also wanted fewer children for economic reasons as raising a child cost a lot of money and they were not assured that the children they spent money for would survive. But men mostly used contraceptive method the preserve their own health as they tended to have mistresses and did not want to have venereal diseases and illegitimate children.
Bibliography– Planned Parenthood of America. “A History of Birth Control Methods” New York,
– HATCHER Robert A. and others. Contraceptive Technology. 2009.
– STONE, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in the England1500 – 1800. London: Penguin Books, 1977.
– MEYER SPACKS, Patricia. Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003.
– BULLOUGH, Vern L. The Encyclopedia of Birth Control. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 2001.
– BOSWELL, James. Boswell’s London Journal. New Haver, CT: Yale University Press, 1950.
– YOUSSEF, H. “The History of the condom.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, no. 86 (April 1993): 226-228.
– GROSE, Francis. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. London: Hooper and Wigstead, 1796.
– Seductive fashions: the topless style and the cult of maternal breast-feeding. 1796 (Lawrence stone, 22 image) “The Fashionable Mamma, or The Convenience of Modern Dress” Caricature
– ALLEN, Paul. Trigger Issues, One Small Item, One Giant Impact: Condom. Oxford, New Internationalist, 2007. Page 14.
– HARVEY, A. D. Sex in Georgian England: Attitudes and Prejudices from the 1720s to the 1820s. London, Phoenix Press, 2001.