Anthony Comstock was such a deeply unpleasant person that near the end of the first chapter I checked the index to see how much longer I’d have to put up with him. But it turns out that the next chapter was full of judges and prosecutors and other officials who also thought he was an asshole (and refused to convict or harshly punish people under his law
), so that was nice.
Lots and lots of anti-abortion free love proponents. (And some anti-”unnatural” contraception ones, too, which. IDEK.)
The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice included lots of prominent and wealthy citizens, some of whom happened to own contraceptive-selling businesses which for some strange reason never got raided or shut down. “Freethinkers dubbed the NYSSV the “Society for the Manufacture and Suppression of Vice” and boycotted [its President] Colgate’s products for years.” (29) Most of the people prosecuted for selling birth control were women, immigrants, and/or Jewish.
Today in Awesome Historical Women You Probably Haven’t Heard of, Sarah Chase
Comstock was so well known that people sold birth control devices under the name “Comstock Syringes”, which meant they could avoid prosecution by not actually saying they were for birth control. A+.
At least from the 1860s, and probably before, a man in New York City who wanted birth control could walk into a pharmacy or a “rubber shop” and walk out with a package of condoms, even though after 1873 the US had the most restrictive contraception laws in the west. A woman who wanted birth control could get it by mail order anywhere in the country. (Though it was mostly only advertised in publications aimed at the working class.) This was almost certainly even more true in most of Europe (definitely in London).
However, condoms seem to have had about a 50% failure rate (note that that’s the % of pregnancies after one year of use, not the breakage
rate). Douching was extremely popular and also basically useless. “Womb veils” (diaphragms and/or cervical caps) were probably more effective, but it’s hard to tell because so much depends on sizing and details. IUDs worked and were available but generally needed doctors to insert them and also were deeply unsafe.
I wonder how many women had major gynecological issues in this period and just ... dealt with them, lived through them, spent days in bed sometimes, did all the housework while in unspeakable pain because that was just their life and no one could do anything about it. (I mean, throughout history, but in this period specifically so much of “women’s medicine” seems to have been just making things worse.)
The 19th century understanding of ovulation was that it probably happened around menstruation, which means that lots of doctors recommended only having sex during what they thought was the “safe period” and lots of couples followed their advice and immediately got pregnant. (Timing of ovulation discovered in the 1920s; modern rhythm method described in 1930.)
On the other hand, “Doctors’ remonstrations against withdrawal, which linked it to insanity, impotence, blindness, and a host of other ailments, may have persuaded some men not to try it and others to “change their minds” at the last minute. Although modern science has invalidated such prophecies of doom, they may well have had a placebo effect on Americans in an earlier era. In 1895, one woman complained that her husband, a physician, had practiced withdrawal only to complain of being entirely “worn out [the] next day.”” (72) Men.
Evidence that some mothers told their daughters about birth control, at least in the pre-wedding Talk: I did not expect this.
1924 study found that 2/3 of respondents had used some form of birth control. Also mentions “one woman from a small Midwestern town whose determination [to gain information] led her to the doorsteps of the community member she believed possessed the most expertise: the “keeper of a brothel.”” (78)