The earliest undisputed evidence of condom use in Europe is from the 16th century. In 1564, the Italian physician Gabriele Falloppio (for whom the Fallopian tubes are named), wrote a tract on the “French Disease” (syphilis). He recommended that to avoid contracting the disease, men should use a small linen sheath on the glans (head) of the penis. The cloth had to be sewn to fit the glans precisely so that it wouldn’t fall off. A ribbon tied to the shaft of the penis also helped keep the cloth in place. Falloppio suggested that it be pink, to please the ladies. Before intercourse, the man was to moisten the sheath with a little saliva or lotion.
The oldest condoms ever excavated date from nearly a century later (approximately 1642). They were found in a cesspit on the grounds of Dudley Castle and were made from animal membranes.
According to some people, however, there is evidence of condom use from thousands of years ago. Some believe that a 12,000-15,000-year old cave painting in the Grotte des Combarrelles in France depicts a man using a covering (possibly animal skin) on his penis. But this is uncertain, especially when one considers that birth control in early societies was usually practiced by women. They did this either through the use of pessaries – vaginal suppositories soaked in substances ranging from crocodile dung to honey — or amulets (a/k/a wishful thinking).
In addition to linen, early condoms were made from the intestines or bladders of animals which had been softened by treatment with sulfur and lye. In China, glans condoms may have been made of oiled silk paper. In Japan, they were made of tortoise shell or animal horn, with the added advantage that women could attach them to a stick and use them as dildos during their husband’s absences. Later on, Dutch traders introduced full-penis leather condoms to Japan.
By the 18th century, condoms in various qualities and sizes could be bought at pubs, barbershops, chemist shops, open-air markets, and theaters. Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, the famed 18th century lover, recorded in his memoirs that he would often blow condoms up before use to test them for holes. It wasn’t until 1937, however, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated that every condom be tested before packaging.
Condoms weren’t mass-produced until the mid-19th century when Charles Goodyear patented the rubber vulcanization process. Though initially more expensive than those made from animal skin, rubber condoms could be reused. The earliest ones were manufactured by wrapping strips of raw rubber around penis-shaped molds, then dipping the wrapped molds in chemicals to cure the rubber. Since they covered only the glans of the penis, however, they had to be made to measure and still tended to fall off during use. To remedy this, manufacturers began producing full-length, one-size-fits-all rubber condoms.
The end of the 19th century saw further improvements. Seamless rubber condoms appeared, followed by “teat-ended” (reservoir-tipped) versions. In 1912, a new technique for making condoms was developed in Germany. In this method – called “cement dipping” — glass molds were dipped into a solution of rubber which had been made liquid by the addition of gasoline or benzene. The resulting product would then be smoothed by rubbing and trimming.
Liquid latex was invented in the mid-1930s. Latex condoms were stronger and thinner than rubber ones and had a longer shelf-life — 5 years as compared to 3 months. World War II saw the introduction of plastic condoms. The Japanese produced the first colored condom in 1949, while lubricated ones appeared in the ‘50s. In 1975, the first condoms lubricated with spermicidal jelly went on the market. More recent additions to the market include silicone condoms, and ones made specifically for anal use.
A bigger mystery than the history of the condom is the origin of the word itself. It first appeared in print in 1706 in a poem by Lord Belhaven, followed by a 1717 appearance in a book by Daniel Turner. Proposed origins have included the Latin words condon (receptacle), condamina (house), and cumdum (scabbard or case). Others have suggested Italian guanto (glove), and a French village named Condom, though there is no evidence such a place ever existed.
Following research by the American Dialect Society, it is now generally agreed that the origin of the word is unknown. Other names for the condom include prophylactic, rubber and French letter. Because everyone knows – the French invented sex.