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9 Fascinating Historic Methods of Contraception

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This might not be the time for the birds and the bees talk, but sometimes, when a man and a woman love each other, they have sex—but they don’t always do it to make a baby. In fact, sometimes, they are very much not in the market for a baby. So before the veritable cornucopia of contraceptive options available to copulating couples today, how did people make love without making dependents?

1. Crocodile dung

The Ancient Egyptians got a lot of things right, but the notion of sticking a ball of crocodile poop and honey up there is, frankly, horrifying. However, it’s quite possible that the poop pessary, as suggested in papyri dating from 1850 BCE, was an effective means of preventing pregnancy—and not entirely because it inhibited relations all together. Crocodile dung has alkaline qualities which could have made it an effective spermicide, in addition to the notion that inserting a solid ball of poop into the vagina could act as a physical barrier.

2. The honey, dates, and acacia tampon

The famed Ebers Papyrus, dating from about 1550 BCE, instructs women in making what could sound like the basis of a dessert or a cocktail—muddled honey, dates, and acacia juice extract, from the tannin-rich acacia tree—until it’s slathered on a bundle of wool and introduced to the reproductive system. The honey and the dates probably didn’t do much, but the acacia, which modern researchers have found can be compounded to become the spermicidal lactic acid anhydride, probably did. Handily, the products of this itchy, sticky recipe, as well as one for a donkey milk-soaked tampon, were buried with dead women so that they wouldn’t become pregnant in the afterlife if they didn’t wish to.

3. Other items to hide in the lady pouch

Ancient Egyptians weren’t the only ones who realized that putting something up there could be an effective form of birth control. In first century India, women inserted pessaries made of oil-soaked rock salt, or a mixture of honey, ghee (clarified butter), and palasha tree seeds, or elephant dung. Dioscorides, another first century Greek doctor, recommended peppermint or sickelwort mixed with honey (always honey). In the 17th and 18th centuries, women could use half a squeezed lemon as a stinging cervical cap; legendary lothario Casanova takes credit for “inventing” that method, but there’s significant evidence that a lot of people in many different cultures were using it.

Vaginal suppositories were used well into the 20th century—cocoa butter pessaries were sold in London until 1960, while some English women in the 1970s used vitamin-C tablets, which sound like they would burn and, unsurprisingly, did.

4. The early diaphragms

Pessaries made out of foodstuffs and poop worked on a few different levels, physically as a barrier to keep the sperm from reaching its intended target and chemically, in some cases, as a spermicide. But other objects pressed into use as diaphragms, cervical caps, and other inserted barriers included a weird, six-sided wooden block the Victorians used that required a lot of fiddling to work and was denounced as an “instrument of torture”; natural sponges; a teapot top, if the traveling History of Contraception Museum is to be believed; rubber; algae and seaweed; wool; specially-made gold or silver caps; oiled paper; small rocks; and melted and molded beeswax.

5. Flushing it out

Roman and Greek women were big into douches and the notion of flushing the visiting sperm out of the lady canal with sea water, vinegar, lemon juice, and other acidic, stinging liquids. Ancient Indian women also tried steaming it out, using a special kettle. But it was American teenagers in the latter and obviously more enlightened half of the 20th century who hit upon the best anti-baby lady irrigator: Coca-Cola. Though Coke, whether Diet, New, Cherry or otherwise, does not make an effective spermicide, but that did not stop women from trying it; that it came with its own “shake and shoot” applicator (thanks, Snopes) made it all the better. I wish I could say that this was an urban legend, that women didn’t really believe this, but a friend of a friend’s cousin tried it and the bottle got stuck. True story. 

6. The morning—or moment—after

Soranus, which is a very funny name, was a first century Greek physician who suggested that ladies who didn’t wish to conceive should, immediately after the act, hold their breath, sneeze, and then drink cold water. Should that not work, you could also try kicking your heels into your butt until the “seed” comes loose and falls out. And if that doesn’t work, jump up and down.

7. Drink this, eat that

Even before Margaret Sanger pioneered The Pill, women used oral contraceptives to retain control over their fertility—though not always to good effect. Ancient Chinese women drank solutions of mercury in an effort to keep babies at bay; it probably did have a sterilizing effect, but also probably caused brain damage and kidney failure. Drinking water that a blacksmith had cooled his iron in was also a thing from ancient Greek times through medieval Europe, but was probably just about as healthful as drinking mercury. Herbal infusions were also pretty popular, such as pennyroyal tea, which is quite toxic in all but the weakest doses, or drinks made from pine or vitex, known to Ancient Greek women as “the chaste tree.”

There are, of course, other more benign oral methods of contraception. Ancient Greek women ate pomegranate seeds (or, as was probably more common, inserted them vaginally), inspired by the Greek myth of Persephone, goddess of spring, and her unwilling vacation to the Underworld. In India and Sri Lanka, women who didn’t want to conceive were advised to eat a papaya a day; according to modern research, the enzyme papain interacts with the pregnancy hormone progesterone to inhibit pregnancy.

One of the best sources on medieval contraception comes from Peter of Spain—a 13th century son of a physician who became, quite ironically, Pope John XXI. Peter’s suggestions included a lengthy list of herbal potions and lotions, including sage (to be taken orally, preferably in a nice cream sauce on ravioli) and hemlock (to be applied in a plaster to the testicles).

8. Weasels’ testicles, mules’ earwax, and black cats

The medieval concept of human conception was, well, flawed. Aside from the mildly contraceptive belief that the best time for conception was during menstruation, because menstrual blood was believed to be the lady’s contribution to the baby batter, the medievals had some other exciting ways to stave off babies—like tying a weasel’s testicles around your neck. One could also wear an amulet made of mules’ earwax, donkey dung, or a mule's uterus, or a bone taken from the right side of an all-black cat, strapped to your thigh; Dioscorides, the Greek physician, recommended wearing a necklace made of an asparagus stalk.

Weasel ball necklaces were not the only creative use of animal testicles as contraception in history—women in North America were said to drink a potion of dried beavers’ testicles and strong alcohol to try to prevent pregnancy. Early physicians also suggested that men who didn’t wish to impregnate their partners drink a potion of pulverized animal testicles, sometimes mules'.

9. The condom

Even if they didn’t quite understand where babies came from and how, pre-modern people were at least clued in that something happened during the act of intercourse and it probably involved the gentleman’s contribution. A 12,000 to 15,000 year old cave painting in France depicts what some historians claim is the first illustration of a man wearing a condom during sexual intercourse; King Minos of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa, who lived around 3000 BCE, supposedly used goat bladders as condoms; and an illustration from Ancient Egypt, about 3000 years old, seems to show a man wearing what looks like a sheath around his penis. The oldest condoms ever found date back to 1640 and were animal-tissue sheaths, like sausage casings, found at Dudley Castle in England.

So why are they called “condoms”? Some historians say that a mysterious Dr. Condom was an 18th century physician in pay of a British king who gave the randy royal a reusable condom made of sheep intestine. It’s probably a bit more likely, given the ancient provenance of the condom, that it comes from the Latin condon, meaning “receptacle.” The famed lover Casanova, who supposedly seduced his own daughter, used linen condoms; Japanese men in the 19th century used kabutogata, hard sheaths that were made of leather or tortoiseshell and were definitely not ribbed for her pleasure. Interestingly, if you have a latex allergy, you can still buy condoms made of sheep intestine, although they ought to be discarded after one use and they’re not as effective as latex in preventing disease.

After animal tissue and before latex, however, there was rubber—and Goodyear, as in the tire manufacturer, got in on the ground floor of the condom market: In 1861, the New York Times ran an advert for “Dr. Power’s French Preventatives,” a Goodyear-made condom. Latex made its entrance on the scene in the 1930s. 

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Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.
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There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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