Is Your Victorian Gentleman Sponge-Worthy? Contraception in the Years 1826 – 1891

I’m doing some major league procrastination today! I didn’t mean to find this information; I bumped into it while looking for something else. Anyway, I think it’s just fascinating.

The following is excerpted from The Law of Population: its consequences and its bearing upon human conduct and morals, by Annie Wood Besant, 1878

The preventive check which is so generally practised in France that Dr. Drysdale—with a rarely wide French experience—stated that among the peasantry it was “used universally,” and was “practised by almost every male in Paris, and all over the country,” is one which depends entirely on the self-control of the man. It consists simply in the withdrawal of the husband previous to the emission of the semen, and is, of course, absolutely certain as a preventive. A few among the French doctors contend that the practice is injurious, more especially to the wife; but they have failed, so far as we can judge, in making out their case, for they advance no proofs in support of their theory, while the universal practice of the French speaks strongly on the other side.

The preventive check advocated by Dr. Knowlton is, on the other hand, entirely in the hands of the wife. It consists in the use of the ordinary syringe immediately after intercourse, a solution of sulphate of zinc or of alum being used instead of water. There is but little doubt that this check is an effective one, a most melancholy proof of its effectiveness being given by Dr. J. C. Barr, who, giving evidence before the Commission on the working of the Contagious Diseases Act, stated:—” Every woman who leaves the hospital is instructed in the best mode of preventing disease. These are cleanliness, injections of alum and sulphate of zinc.”

Professor Sheldon Amos, dealing with the same painful subject, refers to this evidence, and quotes Dr. Barr as saying again, ” my custom is to instruct them to keep themselves clean, to use injections and lotions.” These women are not meant to bear children, they are to be kept” fit for use ” by Her Majesty’s soldiers.

Apart altogether from this sad, but governmentally authorized use of this check, there are many obvious disadvantages connected with it as a matter of taste and feeling. The same remark applies to the employment of the baudruche, a covering used by men of loose character as a guard against syphilitic diseases, and occasionally recommended as a preventive check.

The check which appears to us to be preferable, as at once certain, and in no sense grating on any feeling of affection or of delicacy, is that recommended by Carlile many years ago in his “Every Woman’s Book.”

Susanna’s Note.  Here is a limited view of  What is Love  about Richard Carlile and contains his 1826 book  Every Woman’s Book  that is mentioned above. Amazon describes the book as “What is Love? provides a timely appreciation of Richard Carlile’s neglected shocker, Every Woman’s Book. Originally published in 1826, it scored a double first: as a progressive sex manual and as the first book in English to specify methods of contraception.”

Richard Carlile

To prevent impregnation, pass to the end of the vagina a piece of fine sponge, which should be dipped in water before being used, and which need not be removed until the morning. Dr. Marion Sims, who in cases of retroversion of the uterus constantly used mechanical support to maintain the uterus in its normal position, and so make pregnancy possible, gives much useful information on the various kinds of pessaries. He sometimes used a “small wad of cotton, not more than an inch in diameter,” which was “secured with a string for its removal this was worn during the day and removed at night. He says that the woman using a pessary should be able ” to remove and replace it with the same facility that she would put on and pull off an old slipper.” There is, in fact, no kind of difficulty in the use of this check, and it has the great advantage of unobtrusiveness.

There is a preventive check attempted by many poor women which is most detrimental to health, and should therefore never be employed, namely, the too-long persistence in nursing one baby, in the hope of thereby preventing the conception of another. Nursing does not prevent conception. A child should not be nursed, according to Dr. Chavasse, for longer than nine months; and he quotes Dr. Farr, as follows:—” It is generally recognized that the healthiest children are those weaned at nine months complete. Prolonged nursing hurts both child and mother: in the child, causing a tendency to brain disease, probably through disordered digestion and nutrition; in the mother, causing a strong tendency to deafness and blindness.” Dr. Chavasse adds: “If he be suckled after he be twelve months old, he is generally pale, flabby, unhealthy, and rickety; and the mother is usually nervous, emaciated, and hysterical. … A child nursed beyond twelve months is very apt, if he should live, to be knock-kneed, and bowlegged, and weak-ankled, to be narrow-chested, and chickenbreasted.” If pregnancy occur, and the mother be nursing, the consequences affect alike the mother, the babe, and the unborn child. To nurse under these circumstances, says Dr. Chavasse, “is highly improper, as it not only injures her own health, and may bring on a miscarriage, but it is also prejudicial to her babe, and may produce a delicacy of constitution from which he might never recover.”

The following excerpt is from Fruits of Philosophy, Charles Knowlton.  The Google book is credited to Charles Knowlton, yet the title page reads: Fruits of Philosophy, A Treatise of the Population Question, by Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, 1891. The preface clears up the matter nicely:

PUBLISHERS’ PREFACE.

The pamphlet which we now present to the public is one which has been lately prosecuted under Lord Campbell’s Act, and which we republish, in order to test the right of publication. It was originally written by Charles Knowlton, M. D., whose degree entitles him to be heard with respect on a medical question. It was first published in England, about forty years ago (Susanna’s note: this website states the first edition was published in 1832), by James Watson, the gallant radical, who came to London and took up Richard Carlile’s work, when Carlile was in jail.


There have been several means proposed and practiced for checking conception. I shall briefly notice them, though a knowledge of the best is what most concerns us. That of withdrawal immediately before emission is certainly effectual, if practiced with sufficient care. But if (as I believe) Dr. Dewees’ theory of conception be correct, and as Spallanzani’s experiments show that only a trifle of semen, even largely diluted with water, may impregnate by being injected into the vagina, it is clear that nothing short of entire withdrawl is to be depended upon. But the old notion that the semen must enter the uterus to cause conception, has led many to believe that a partial withdrawal is sufficient, and it is on this account that this error has proved mischievous, as all important errors generally do. It is said by those who speak from experience that the practice of withdrawal has an effect upon the health similar to intemperance in eating. As the subsequent exhaustion is probably mainly owing to the shock the nervous system sustains in the act of coition, this opinion may be correct. It is further said that this practice serves to keep alive those fine feelings with which married people first come together. Still, I leave it for every one to decide for himself whether this check be so far from satisfactory as not to render some other very desirable.

As to the baudruche, which consists in a covering used by the male, made of very delicate skin, it is by no means calculated to come into general use. It has been used to secure immunity from syphilitic affections.

From online exhibit : Off the Pedestal – Images of Women In Victorian Broadsides, Ephemera & Fast literature CLICK TO VIEW SITE.

Another check which the old idea of conception has led some to recommend with considerable confidence, consists in introducing into the vagina, previous to connection, a very delicate piece of sponge, moistened with water, to be immediately afterward withdrawn by means of a very narrow ribbon attached to it. But, as our views would lead us to expect, this check has not proved a sure preventive. As there are many little ridges or folds in the vagina, we cannot suppose the withdrawal of the sponge would dislodge all the semen in every instance. If, however, it were well moistened with some liquid which acted chemically upon the semen, it would be pretty likely to destroy the fecundating property of what might remain. But if this check were ever so sure, it would, in my opinion, fall short of being equal, all things considered, to the one I am about to mention —one which not only dislodges the semen pretty effectually, but at the same time destroys the fecundating property of the whole of it.

It consists in syringing the vagina immediately after connection with a solution of sulphate of zinc, of alum, pearl-ash, or any salt that acts chemically on the semen, and at the same time produces no unfavorable effect on the female.

In all probability a vegetable astringent would answer— as an infusion of white oak bark, of red rose leaves, of nutgalls, and the like. A lump of either of the above-mentioned salts, of the size of a chestnut, may be dissolved in a pint of water, making the solution weaker or stronger, as it may be borne without any irritation of the parts to which it is applied. These solutions will not lose their virtues by age. A female syringe, which will be required in the use of the check, may be had at the shop of an apothecary for a shilling or less. If preferred, the semen may be dislodged as far as it can be, by syringing with simple water, after which some of the solution is to be injected, to destroy the fecundating property of what may remain lodged between the ridges of the vagina, etc.

I know the use of this check requires the woman to leave her bed for a few moments, but this is its only objection; and it would be unreasonable to suppose that any check can ever be devised entirely free of objections. In its favor it may be said, it costs nearly nothing; it is sure ; it requires no sacrifice of pleasure; it is in the hand of the female; it is to be used after, instead of before the connection, a weighty consideration in its favor, as a moment’s reflection will convince any one; and last, but not least, it is conducive to cleanliness, and preserves the parts from relaxation and disease…Those who have used this check (and some have used it, to my certain knowledge with entire success for nine or ten years, and under such circumstances as leave no room to doubt its efficacy) affirm that they would be at the trouble of using injections merely for the purposes of health and cleanliness.

By actual experiment it has been rendered highly probable that pregnancy may, in many instances, be prevented by injections of simple water, applied with a tolerable degree of care. But simple water has failed, and its occasional failure is what we should expect, considering the anatomy of the parts, and the results of Spallanzani’s experiments heretofore alluded to.

This much did I say respecting this check in the first edition of this work. That is what I call the chemical check. The idea of destroying the fecundating property of the semen was original, if it did not originate with me. My attention was drawn to the subject by the perusal of “Moral Physiology.” Such was my confidence in the chemical idea that I sat down and wrote this work in July, 1831. But the reflection that I did not know that this check would never fail, and that if it should, I might do someone an injury in recommending it, caused the manuscript to lie on hand until the following December. Some time in November I fell in with an old acquaintance, who agreeably surprised me by stating that to his personal knowledge this last check had been used as above stated. I have since conversed with a gentleman with whom I was acquainted, who stated that, being in Baltimore some few years ago, he was there informed of this check by those who have no doubt of its efficacy. From what has as yet fell under my observation, I am not warranted in drawing any conclusion. I can only say that I have never known it to fail. Such are my views on the whole subject, that it would require many instances of its reputed failure to satisfy me that such failures were not owing to an insufficient use of it. I even believe that quite cold water alone, if thoroughly used, would be sufficient. In Spallanzani’s experiments warm water was unquestionably used. As the seminal animalculæ are essential to impregnation, all we have to do is to change the condition of, or, if you will, to kill them ; and as they are so exceedingly small and delicate, this is doubtless easily done, and hence cold water may be sufficient.

What has now been advanced in this work will enable the reader to judge for himself or herself of the efficacy of the chemical or syringe check, and time will probably determine whether I am correct in this matter. I do know that those married females who have much desire to escape will not stand for the little trouble of using this check, especially when they consider that on the score of cleanliness and health alone it is worth the trouble.

A great part of the time no check is necessary, and women of experience and observation, with the information conveyed by this work, will be able to judge pretty correctly when it is and when it is not. They may rest assured that none of the salts mentioned will have any deleterious effect. The sulphate of zinc is commonly known by the name of white vitriol. This, as well as alum, have been extensively used for leucorrhoea. Acetate of lead would doubtless be effectual—indeed, it has proven to be so; but I do not recommend it, because I conceive it possible that a long continued use of it might impair the instinct.

I hope that no failures will be charged of efficacy of this check which ought to be attributed to negligence or insufficient use of it. I will therefore recommend at least two applications of the syringe, the sooner the surer, yet it is my opinion that five minutes’ delay would not prove mischievous—perhaps not ten.

*Read Part II of Contraception in the Years 1826 – 1891

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11 Responses to Is Your Victorian Gentleman Sponge-Worthy? Contraception in the Years 1826 – 1891

  1. Ella Quinn says:

    Amazing what you can find when you’re looking for something else. LOL. I was very interested about his comments on nursing, considering I nursed my son for two years.

    Have a wonderful vacation.

  2. Susanna says:

    @Ella I almost chopped off the nursing comments, but they were so crazy I had to keep them.

  3. Tia Nevitt says:

    I nursed for a year before my daughter self-weaned. The nursing warnings may have actually been applicable in times of vitamin-deficient women. Imagine nursing if you have a calcium deficiency–which is an easy condition to have. Both mother and child may have ended up with rickets–or something similar since rickets is caused by Vitamin D deficiency.

    You find the most interesting stuff! And the most chilling!

  4. Gerri Bowen says:

    The nursing part got to me, too. Sheesh! I also nursed. Very interesting though, Susanna. Any idea what they meant by syringe?

  5. Susanna says:

    @Gerri – Yes, the syringe sounds rather interesting. “A female syringe, which will be required in the use of the check, may be had at the shop of an apothecary for a shilling or less.” There are many books about female health issues around the same time; maybe one would further explain the female syringe.

  6. Susanna says:

    @Tia – “And the most chilling!” — That’s what I love about the Victorian Era. It can be so gothic and creepy!

  7. Abigail says:

    I can not help but think that Dr. Knowlton knew quite a bit about sex.

  8. Susanna says:

    @Abigail, Look at his picture! You can almost hear him saying, “Hey baby, wanna experiment?”

  9. Frauke A says:

    If you want to know what the syringe looks like, have a look at “the victorian pharmacy” which is a 4 part bbc documentary. It was educational. I think it was in part 2 or 3 but I am not sure.
    Additionally I believe that the warning about breast feading and associated symptoms do describe vitamin D deficiancy known as rickets. I personally knew a woman who lost her teeth throughout 3 pregnancies. Malnutrition can do bad things to your body. And how would poor women get the necessary vitamins?

  10. Susanna says:

    Thanks for this. I haven’t seen that series, but I own its companion book. I’ll take a look. Yeah, pregnancy wrecks havoc on teeth 🙁

  11. Pingback: O controle da natalidade no século XIX – Era Vitoriana

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