Toronto museum reminds us of the bad old days of baby prevention

It’s common to imagine, in this era of widespread latex condom use and injected hormonal birth-control treatments, that contraception, if not pleasurable sex itself, was invented sometime in the mid-1960s. It was in the ’70s that the pill became widely available and in the ’80s that the Supreme Court of Canada decriminalized abortion. In a relatively short amount of time, there’s been a cultural shift towards recognizing the importance of a woman’s right to control when, and if, she will have children.

But while our recent understanding of how the reproductive system works has given us more reliable forms of birth control, the urge to prevent pregnancy has been actively and creatively pursued since Onan spilled his seed on the ground in the book of Genesis. Ancient Egyptian literature included a recipe for a medicated contraceptive tampon that involved mixing dates and honey with acacia, which ferments into lactic acid, a now-common ingredient in spermicide. Actual prescriptions from the European middle ages are hard to find, but the practice of contraception was certainly widespread. “If stop signs imply the existence of traffic, the clergy’s ongoing condemnation of abortion and contraception can at the very least be taken as evidence of continued employment of such practices,” Angus McLaren points out in A History of Contraception from Antiquity to the Present Day.

The earth-shaking change of the 20th century is not the widespread use of birth control, but their almost complete move from the private sphere to the commercial. Today, birth control is big business, but in past centuries, women passed information through word of mouth, often without informing their husbands of the preventative measures they were taking.

John M. Riddle, in his book Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, points out that this is why we know so little about past contraceptive methods. “Their knowledge was primarily transmitted by a network of women working within the culture of their gender and that only occasionally was some of it learned by medical writers, almost all of whom were male,” Riddle writes.

One of the best places in the world to view the striking contrast between the commercial present and the private past is in a sleepy industrial park at 19 Green Belt Dr, north of Don Mills and Eglinton. A gallery hall in the head office of the pharmaceutical conglomerate Janssen-Ortho, a birth-control pill manufacturer, houses the History of Contraception Museum.

The museum was founded and is still curated by Percy Skuy, a retired president of Ortho. He began collecting outdated contraceptive devices in 1966 to illustrate sales lectures to pharmaceutical conventions, expanding his collection to meet his audiences’ enthusiasm for the historical aspects of his speeches.

The museum’s collection has since grown to include more than 600 examples of birth control methods housed in 11 cabinets. It’s the largest such collection in the world.

“What I’ve learned from these artifacts is that first of all this is the story of human motivation, through many cultures, many countries and over literally hundreds and thousands of years to want to limit family size,” Skuy says. That motivation did not always lead to results: people in past eras had a shaky grasp of how conception occured (the world was unaware, for example, of the presence of sperm in semen until after the invention of the microscope in the late 17th century), so their attempts at contraception were based on often misguided guesswork. “They could be very creative in using only what they had around them. Sometimes these things worked and sometimes they didn’t,” Skuy says.

Much of the conversational value of the museum stems from the methods that didn’t work: in the middle ages women believed that they could ward off pregnancy by tying the bones from the testicles of a weasel to their thighs, or by wearing amulets containing a bone from the right side of a black cat or the ear wax from a mule; literature from ancient India outlines the process of fumigation, in which smoke from burning neem wood was introduced into the vagina through an opening in the top of a specially constructed kettle; and women in China 4000 years ago drank lead and mercury to ward off pregnancy. (This worked, but also led quickly to sterility and death.)

Further horror (or amusement, depending on your sensibility) is provided by other means that may have been partly effective but impossibly painful. Notable among these is an implement called the “block pessary,” a square wooden object a little smaller than a child’s letter block with concavities on all six sides. Inserted into the vagina, the hope was that one of the concave surfaces would fit over the cervix. The title card next to it rightly notes that it has been called “an instrument of torture.”

But once we’re finished smirking at the painful naivit√© of our ancestors, it’s interesting to see how many methods turn out to have been at least somewhat effective. It’s hard to imagine how, 3,000 years ago in Egypt, women using vaginal suppositories made of crocodile dung could have known that they’d be effective, but the dung would have formed a crude wall over the cervix and its high acidity had spermicidal properties. In the 18th century, women in New Brunswick drank tea made from dried beaver testicles, which contain testosterone, that may have provided some contraceptive effect. It’s easy to see how people understood the absorbent qualities of sponges, used for thousands of years on the Mediterranean, but harder to see how they knew that dipping the sponges in lemon juice would increase their effectiveness by killing sperm.

Perhaps most famously, women in Mexico traditionally chewed a wild yam to prevent pregnancy, and it worked. In the 1930s, researchers found that the root contained the hormone progestin; the discovery led to the development of the birth control pill.

Which is where the museum’s collection of historic artifacts effectively stops. There are no displays in the musuem of Janssen-Ortho’s pills, injectables or any current method. Skuy says the museum wants to stay away from the “commercial market.”

But there is a display dedicated to future methods, containing research-stage items such as the male pill, further injectables and high-tech ovulation thermometers. There seems to be no revolutionary leap forward envisioned in this museum comparable to the move from crocodile dung to pill.

But, contemplating the future in a museum that seems at least partly intended to make us laugh at our ancestors’ primitive attempts to do what Janssen-Ortho does so cleanly raises the question of what our descendents will think about turn-of-the-21st-century contraceptive methods.

It’s hard to imagine in what ways we’ll seem as primitive to them as the ancient Egyptians do to us, but then it was impossible to imagine a computer smaller than a car prior to the invention of the microchip just two generations ago. And with contraception a billion-dollar industry, there’s a strong incentive to make the next big breakthrough. Will the mood-altering hormonal side effects of the pill or the barbarism of IUDs or the laughable inelegance of the diaphragm seem as confusingly funny to future generations as weasel testicles and the block pessary do to us? One can only hope.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on February 20, 2003.