Putting on the Ritz (Condoms)

1930s Latex Condoms

Three popular liquid latex condom brands, 1930s-1940s

Liquid Latex Condoms (1930s)

Some form of male condoms have helped protect Americans from disease and unplanned pregnancy at least since the 18th century. The Comstock Act of 1873, however, limited the production and distribution of all birth control devices within the United States, including condoms. The Comstock Act made it illegal to send any “article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever for the prevention of conception” through the mail. The law, pushed through by vice crusader Anthony Comstock, essentially criminalized contraception. Globally however, reactions like the United States' were unusual. During World War I, the manufacturing and distribution of condoms world-wide accelerated.

In 1918 (two years before women had their constitutional right to vote affirmed) a New York court of appeals ruling on Margaret Sanger's contraceptive distribution case judged that "prophylatics" prescribed to prevent disease were not immoral or indecent, and so could be sent through the U.S. mail system. In the 1920s, mass production of reliable latex condoms, and their widespread legal distribution as disease preventatives, helped make liquid latex prophylactics a popular contraceptive choice. No longer made of linen, silk, or animal intestines, relatively comfortable and inexpensive condoms did brisk business by 1930. That year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the second Circuit decided that while condoms were still illegal to distribute as contraceptives, they could be sold without prescription as disease preventatives. 

Tetratex Condoms, individual packages and small box

Tetratex Condoms, cardboard box of one dozen, divided into smaller packages of three, circa 1940

Tetratex Genuine Latex

The rubber manufacturers L.E Shunk Latex Products produced multiple brands of prophylactics, and were especially profitable in the 1930s. They faced several lawsuits for adulteration, and came to an unusual legal agreement with competitors over an infringement claim in 1937. In 1965, the Supreme Court finally struck down the remaining laws preventing the legal sale of approved contraceptives for married women.

While laws approving the sale of condoms for disease prevention definitely improved consumer access to the products, the lack of accurate and clear information about contraception had long-lasting effects. For years, the use of coded euphemisms for birth control encouraged a thriving cottage industry promoting around unproven and medically unsound pregnancy prevention products, as seen in our segment on "feminine hygiene." 

Citations and Further Readings:

Andrea Tone, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America (New York; Hill and Wang, 2001).

Alexandra M. Lord, Condom Nation: The U.S. Government's Sex Education Campaign from WWI to the Internet (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

Condoms or Prophylactics