Since the beginning of time, humans have engaged in sexual activity for other purposes than reproducing. Until the late 19th and 20th centuries, couples were using all kinds of different homemade ancient birth control methods to prevent pregnancy. Let’s get back into history to find out how our ancestors avoided pregnancy.
9 forms of birth control used in ancient times
Before the birth control movement, which was closely tied to the feminist movement, women relied on homemade oral contraceptives made from herbs, spices, or even heavy metals; homemade barrier methods made from animal guts; and various other sperm-blocking ingredients that were placed directly in or on the genitals to prevent pregnancy.
Wondering what kinds of ancient birth control were being used by women in ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, and in medieval Europe all the way up until the late 1800’s? After reading this list, you’ll thank your lucky stars that you were born into the world of modern birth control.
Honey and acacia
Records dating back to 1850 BC show us that some of the most popular ancient Egypt birth control methods included the use of honey, acacia fruit, and acacia leaves as natural spermicides. Women would mix honey and acacia fruit and soak lint or cotton in the mixture. They would insert it into their vaginas before having sex, and it would kill the sperm before it had a chance to reach the uterus.
Probably the least hygienic ingredient used to prevent pregnancy, ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians would mix crocodile dung with other ingredients to form a pessary: a block that was inserted in the vagina.
That isn’t the only record of animal feces being used as ancient contraceptives. In ancient India and the Middle East, people would use elephant feces in a similar way to prevent pregnancy. Today, it is unknown whether these ancient birth control methods were effective in preventing pregnancy.
Lead and mercury
It’s hard to imagine that back in the day, people freely applied and consumed poisonous substances such as heavy metals that we now know are extremely detrimental to one’s health.
All across the world, ancient civilisations used heavy metals including mercury, lead, and arsenic to prevent pregnancy. Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Chinese would drink liquid mercury, liquid lead, or arsenic — or a combination of these — to prevent conception. Unfortunately, these poisonous substances would also lead to kidney and lung failure, and brain damage. But they did work as birth control!
In ancient Rome and Greece and in the ancient Near East, women used an oral contraceptive called Silphium, which was a species of giant fennel. They would also soak cotton or lint in the juice of the plant and insert it into their vaginas to prevent pregnancy.
The silphium seeds eventually became so valuable that they were used as a form of currency, deemed even more valuable than silver, by weight. The plant became extinct in late antiquity.
Queen Anne’s lace
Queen Anne’s Lace has been used as an effective form of birth control for thousands of years, and even though it is considered one of the old forms of birth control, people still use it today as a contraceptive.
Sometimes referred to as wild carrot, Queen Anne’s Lace was famously described by Hippocrates more than 2,000 years ago as an oral contraceptive and abortifacient.
It is claimed that Queen Anne’s Lace seeds may be one of the most potent anti fertility agents around. It is most effective when used as a “morning after” drug — taken immediately after intercourse. The seeds disrupt progesterone synthesis, blocking implantation, or causing the egg to be released soon after implantation.
An ancient birth control method proposed by Aristotle, women in ancient Greece used olive oil mixed with cedar oil to decrease sperm mobility. This would give them time to rinse themselves out or douche after having sex to reduce the chance of pregnancy.
It is believed that the citric acid in lemon possesses spermicidal qualities, making this acidic fruit an effective ancient birth control. Women would soak sponges or cotton in lemon juice and insert it into their vaginas. It would both act a barrier to the cervix and as a spermicide.
Rumour has it that Casanova, the famous Venetian ladies’ man of the 18th century, would fashion a cervical cap out of half a lemon to use with the women he slept with.
Douches were popularly used in ancient Rome to prevent pregnancy. Women would rinse out their vaginas with all kinds of substances such as seawater, lemon juice, and vinegar.
Until quite recently in the early 1900s — before the legalization of birth control in the United States — women would use toxic cleaning agents such as Lysol to douche. There were many Lysol poisonings and even a few deaths linked to Lysol being used as a douche.
The use of condoms goes way hundreds of years to the 1600s when the first known condoms were made out of animal membranes including bladders and intestines. It’s very possible that the use of condoms goes back even further than that, to the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but we lack evidence proving this.
What we do know is that condoms were first used to prevent the spread of disease. Only later were they utilised as a primary form of birth control as well.
Birth control methods: from then to now
Until modern contraceptives were invented, women relied on all kinds of different ancient birth control methods that were mostly a hit or miss. Some were even dangerous, including the use of heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic, which did prevent conception, but also led to organ failure and brain damage.
The year 1877 marked a big milestone for the birth control movement with the establishment of the Malthusian League by Thomas Malthus in the United Kingdom. The league advocated the practice of contraception and public education on family planning. Subsequently, the 1880s saw a steady decline in birth rates in industrialised countries.
In the year 1880, the first intrauterine device for birth control was invented. In the following decades, many other methods of birth control began to arise including sponges, cervical caps, and condoms (not the ones made from animal intestines).
The first birth control pills were developed in the 1950s and were publicly available in the year 1960 in the United States.
With modern medicine today, birth controls are regulated and tested for efficiency and safety. We’ve come a long way from crocodile dung, and now women and men can choose from a variety of birth control methods including:
- Combined hormone pills
- Progestin-only pills
- Contraceptive patches
- Vaginal rings
- Cervical caps
- Intrauterine device (IUD)
- Sterilisation (vasectomy, tubal ligation)
Of course, there are other birth control methods that do not require any devices or procedures, and those include fertility awareness-based methods (FAMs), withdrawal (pull-out method), breastfeeding, and outercourse.
Each method of birth control has its own advantages and disadvantages. You may choose to use one type of method for a certain period and switch to another kind whenever you feel is necessary.
Contraception is and always has been an important part of the human experience.
Luckily, we’re no longer stuck with ancient forms of birth control that not only make you cringe but were also probably the cause of quite a few nasty infections down there. Let’s give a little shoutout to modern medicine for preventing animal dung from coming anywhere near our genitals.