I’ve posted previously about dealing with a moth infestation on my first day on the job at the museum. My second day on the job was memorable as well. I’d gotten a quick look at the collection room the previous day, but I wanted to get a closer look at the artifacts stored there. It was partly to ensure that the moths hadn’t infiltrated the collection room, but mostly because I was curious about the artifacts! So I started opening drawers. The contents of the very first drawer I opened caused me to do a double-take though. I had to check the label to be certain that it was what it appeared to be. It really was a Civil War era condom!
|This condom is made of sheep or goat skin. The thin ribbon across the top was not used to tie it in place, but added stability and helped to prevent the condom from splitting.|
By the 1860s, animal skin and rubber condoms, sometimes called “preventatives” or “French letters”, were available for use. Typically they were used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Syphilis and gonorrhea were common in both armies during the Civil War. However, this condom was accompanied by a circular which also touted its use for married couples as a birth control device.
|The paper circular from Mr. De Young regarding condoms for sale at his store in Philadelphia. It explains the nature of condoms and the reasons for their use, but with more emphasis on birth control than disease prevention.|
Sex was not a topic which was discussed openly at that time, so it is interesting to note the language and euphemisms used in the circular. You can see how carefully he words his description, “…as to the nature of the article, they are called CUNDUMNS, or Preventatives; they are used for a private purpose by males when having intercourse with the opposite sex. The object in using them is as follows: Single young men use them to prevent themselves from becoming diseased when having intercourse with women of a public character…”
He continues and points out the merits of using them as contraceptives, “…but where I sell one for the above purpose, I sell a hundred for domestic use, for the husband to use with his wife… Indeed, all wives when they become acquainted with this article, they become strong advocates for the husband to use the preventative with them, and they certainly show their good sense in doing so, for the wife saves her own health, and can have just as many children as they can comfortably raise, and need not have any more than they think fit.”
Being a good salesman, he then lists the price, “$3.00 per single paper or dozen. Also on hand Yarners or Ticklers, at $3.00 per dozen.” That was a bit pricey for the time, which may explain why it is reported that sometimes condoms were washed and reused! Surprisingly though, they did appear to be effective at preventing the transmission of diseases.
Displaying the condom presented some challenges. The animal skin is delicate and very prone to damage from light, heat, and relative humidity (RH) at both ends of the spectrum. A high RH can promote the growth of mold or mildew, while a low RH can dry out the skin and cause it to shrink or crack. I had to ensure that the conditions in its display would be appropriate for it.
There was also some apprehension about the public’s reaction to a condom on display. I had several conversations with the museum’s director about the pros and cons of displaying it, and how to most appropriately display it. In the meantime, it went out on short-term loans twice, which gave us a chance to gauge the reaction to it. The displays in both venues, Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington, VA, and the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA, had positive reviews.
|Here are the condom and circular on display at the National Civil War Museum in 2009. Currently they are on display at my museum, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. |
Photo courtesy of the National Civil War Museum.
Ultimately, we felt that that the condom did help to tell the story of the Civil War soldiers, and was in line with the museum’s mission of preserving the legacy of Civil War medical innovation. We did put it in one of the higher cases though, so that it is not in obvious view of our youngest museum visitors.
So I guess the lesson this week is to be careful which drawer you open!
Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.