You may be surprised to learn that condoms have been used for thousands of years – both as a method of birth control and a form of protection against diseases. There have been a number of ingenious inventions as well as huge advances in design and production to provide the ultra-thin, cheap and effective condoms that we enjoy today.
But when were condoms invented? Who invented the condoms and how did they progress from mere cloth and animal guts to being thinner than a human hair?
Let us take you on a journey into the history of the condom…
10000 – 13000 BC
First instances of condoms
Cave paintings discovered in the French town of Combarelles depict a man wearing a condom-like device during sexual intercourse.
Egyptian Drawings Depict Condom Use
Drawings show ancient Egyptians wearing condoms, however, it’s unknown whether they were wearing them for sexual or ritual reasons. The Egyptians were indeed the first to wear condoms, made of fine linen and even went as far as making them in different colours.
Evidence dating back to the 14th Century suggests the use of ‘glans condoms’ by the Asian upper classes. Glans condoms are condoms that cover just the tip of penis.
The Chinese made theirs from oiled silk paper or lamb intestine, whereas the Japanese tended to make theirs from harder materials such as tortoise shell or animal horn.
As you can imagine, especially with the latter, glans condoms would easily move and even become lodged inside the woman.
In the fight against syphilis, which had been spreading like wildfire around Europe & Asia for the previous century, Italian physician and atomist Gabrielle Fallopius made one of the biggest breakthroughs in condom technology.
Fallopius, in his 1594 treatise De Morbo Gallico (‘The French Disease’), suggested a linen cloth be soaked in chemicals, dried and then used as protection against the deadly disease during intercourse.
1,100 brave participants lined up to test out the linen sheath, which covered the glans and tied on with ribbon.
Remarkably, none of them subsequently tested positive for syphilis and the linen condoms became relatively popular.
Oldest Condoms in the World Discovered
During excavations in 1985 at Dudley Castle in the West Midlands, England (pictured), the contents of the castle toilet (aka ‘garderobe’) were discovered remarkably intact and subsequently sorted for further analysis by the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum.
It’s believed the contents remained so well preserved due to the latrine being sealed circa 1947 due to the castle being under siege during the English Civil War (1642-1651).
Examination identified several animal-membrane condoms, thought to be the earliest physical evidence of the use of animal-membrane condoms in post-medieval Europe.
It remains unclear however whether the condoms were used for contraceptive or as protection against venereal diseases.
First Use of the Word ‘Condon’
The first documented use of the word ‘condons’ is thought of have occurred in 1666 when the English Birth Rate Commission reported a drop in birth rates and attributed it to ‘condons’.
Despite some public concern around morality, condom usage soared during this time. They were made from animal skin (bladder or intestine) or linen soaked in chemicals and were available to buy in pubs, markets, barber shops and chemists.
Due to their relative expense and lack of sex education during this time, condom usage was usually confined to the middle and upper classes.
Casanova’s French Letters
Infamous smooth talker, and all-round womanizer, Casanova is thought to of been an early adopter and frequent user of condoms to protect himself and his many lovers from infection; namely syphilis.
Casanova’s memoirs make reference to this and are depicted via this image discovered at the Library Of Congress in Washington D.C.
“We found the three girls lightly clad and sitting on a large sopha, and we sat down opposite to them… The syndic, like a careful man, drew a packet of fine French letters from his pocket, and delivered a long eulogium on this admirable preservative from an accident which might give rise to a terrible and fruitless repentance.
The ladies knew them, and seemed to have no objection to the precaution; they laughed heartily to see the shape these articles took when they were blown out.”
Charles Goodyear Invents Rubber Condoms
Roughly 250 years after Gabrielle Fallopius effectively invented linen condoms with spermicide, the American inventor Charles Goodyear achieved the next landmark by creating condoms made with natural rubber. A good year for condoms you might say… (sorry).
At this stage, they were still quite thick (about the thickness of a bicycle inner tube) however they were also a significantly safer as they were less likely to break.
Men were advised at this time that rubber condoms could be washed and re-used until they perished.
The ‘Comstock Law’, named after Anthony Comstock, was passed in the USA which made it illegal to distribute any kind of ‘obscene’ material through the postal system – including condoms and other contraceptives.
1890 – 1905
Dunlop & Ansell condoms in Australia
The Australian arm of Dunlop Rubber started making condoms in the 1890s in the South Melbourne area.
Dunlop’s Catholic chairman Nicholas Fitzgerald however wasn’t comfortable with the company making condoms and by 1905 forced the business to stop making them altogether.
Eric Ansell was working within the factory at this time and witnessed the condom making equipment being removed and placed into nearby storage. Ansell offered to, and subsequently purchased, the condom making equipment and started making condoms from his rented house in Richmond.
He subsequently quit his role at Dunlop and, with $60 to his name, founded Ansell Rubber.
Incidentally, Dunlop Australia went on to buy Ansell in 1969.
Fromm Invents Cement Dipping Technique
German Chemist & Inventor, Julius Fromm, creates a manufacturing condom technique of dipping glass molds into rubber solution, known as ‘cement dipping’. This was a breakthrough in facilitating the mass production of condoms.
1914 – 1918
First World War
Germany was the only country distribute condoms to soldiers during WW1. The British government, followed by the US when they joined in 1918, argued distribution would promote fornication and initially opted to not provide condoms to troops.
As a result, it’s believed as estimated 5% of the British army suffered from venereal diseases throughout WW1. When you consider the British and Empire army reached around 4 million at one stage that’s quite staggering.
The epidemic of syphilis and gonorrhea wreaked havoc on the British army with over 400,000 hospitalisations, each out of action for 4-5 weeks.
In an effort to keep more soldiers in action and out of hospital, the British army started to distribute condoms in 1917.
Their U.S. counterparts, however, did not and were instead presented with a “Dough Boy Prophylactic” kit, used to treat syphilis and gonorrhea rather than help prevent it.
Advertising Ban on Condoms Lifted
The ban on advertising condoms was lifted and condoms were legally allowed to be advertised and sold as methods to prevent the spread of disease. They weren’t however allowed to be advertised or sold for the purpose of birth control.
Invention of Latex Condoms
1919 was somewhat of a landmark year in the history of condoms as the single-use latex condoms, which we’ve come to know and love today, were invented by a fellow in Ohio named Frederick Killian.
Latex was the ideal material for condom production as it was thinner than rubber, didn’t aged as quickly and was relatively odourless.
Using latex also meant that condoms were cheap and fast to produce, leading to mass production.
Condom Marketing Initiatives Ramp Up
Following the lifting of the condom advertising ban, condoms manufacturers started improving branding both in terms of names and packaging, to make condoms more appealing. 100 years later, this still rings true as condom companies such as Durex and Ansell come up with such innovative and provocative campaigns to raise interest.
Their efforts helped as condom sales doubled during the 1920’s.
This period also saw the introduction of Quality Control methods including filling condoms with air and using pressure release tests to check for holes.
Rather than discard the condoms that didn’t pass Quality Control, condom companies would sell the rejects under a cheaper brand name.
Introduction of Reservoir Tip & Lubricant
Huge improvements were made to latex condom design with the introduction of a reservoir tip, thinner, lighter and tighter latex and the addition of lubricant.
The reservoir tip, as it still does today, was designed to collect semen and was proved to reduce leakage and make condoms more effective.
Introduction of Electronic Testing
Durex started using electronic testing methods to test the quality of condoms. This was a huge step in quality control and increasing the effectiveness of condoms as a contraception and protection against venereal diseases.
Introduction of Lubricant
Durex invented the first condom with added lubricant. This was key to making the use of condoms safer and more enjoyable for both parties due to the reduced friction.
Condoms vs HIV & AIDs
Following the frightening AIDs epidemic, condoms were endorsed, marketed and sold as a method to prevent the spread of HIV.
Condom became available in supermarkets and usage rose dramatically Worldwide. By 1988, condoms were the contraceptive of choice for married couples in Britain – overtaking the contraceptive pill.
In an effort to fight against HIV and AIDS, Richard Branson, of Virgin fame, partnered with Ansell to manufacture non-profit condoms.
They were marketed under the ‘Mates’ brand which was later sold back to Ansell. In return, Ansell paid royalty payments to Branson’s non-profit foundation, Virgin Unite.
Durex debuted the infamous ‘Avanti’ a condom made of polyurethane rather than the traditional latex material. This allowed those with latex allergies to enjoy safe sex without irritation.
Flavoured & Coloured Condoms
Durex followed the introduction of non-latex condoms to also release the first flavoured and coloured condoms to market.
The Spray-on Condom
Jan Vinzenz Krause, an inventor at the Institute for Condom Consultancy in Germany, set about on a mission to finding the perfect fitting condom by inventing the spray on condom.
It didn’t work…
Spermicide – From Friend to Foe
A discovery is made that spermicide, added to condoms to kill sperm and avoid pregnancy, actually increased the risk of HIV. Manufacturers promptly started to remove spermicide from their condoms.
In 2006, it was recorded that over 9 billion condoms were sold worldwide.
Invention of Polyisoprene Condoms
Polyisoprene condoms came to market, providing an even better option to polyurethane for those with latex allergies. The material offered a more natural feel, being stretchier than polyurethane condoms.
Sagami manufacturer World’s Thinnest Condom at 0.01mm
In their quest to create the best condom, Sagami Rubber Industries smashed the world record for the World’s thinnest condom with their 001 condom.
At just 0.01mm thick, the Sagami 001 is 6x thinner than a human hair and half the width of Sagami’s previously thinnest condom, the aptly named 002 which stood at 0.02mm.
Having been in development for over ten years, over 20,000 different prototypes were tested before the 001 was born.
A Sagami researcher commented
Honestly, I don’t how we can make them thinner than this…but as long as there is a need for thinner, we will continue researching 0.009 millimeter and 0.008 millimeter thinness.
Made from polyurethane, the world’s thinnest condom is only for sale in Tokyo. We spoke to Sagami and there are not currently any plans to make them available to the Australian public directly however there are a few online retailers who do stock them.
Ansell Sell Condom Arm of Business to Chinese Consortium
In 2017 Ansell sold the sexual wellness side of the business to Chinese consortium ‘Humanwell Healthcare’ and ‘CITIC’ for US$600 million, ending the company’s 80 year history of making condoms.
The Covid-19 pandemic forces the world’s largest manufacturer of condoms, Karex Bhd, to close it’s factories and stop condom production.
This, combined with us all being locked up with only so much to watch on Netflix, means there’s a potential condom shortage looming on the horizon.