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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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Big Questions
Should You Keep Your Pets Indoors During the Solar Eclipse?
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By now, you probably know what you’ll be doing on August 21, when a total solar eclipse makes its way across the continental United States. You’ve had your safety glasses ready since January (and have confirmed that they’ll actually protect your retinas), you’ve picked out the perfect vantage point in your area for the best view, and you’ve memorized Nikon’s tips for how to take pictures of this rare celestial phenomenon. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something … and it’s probably the thing that's been right under your nose, and sitting on your lap, the whole time: your pets.

Even if you’ve never witnessed a solar eclipse, you undoubtedly know that you’re never supposed to look directly at the sun during one. But what about your four-legged family members? Shouldn’t Fido be fitted with a pair of eclipse glasses before he heads out for his daily walk? Could Princess Kitty be in danger of having her peepers singed if she’s lounging on her favorite windowsill? While, like humans, looking directly at the sun during a solar eclipse does pose the potential of doing harm to a pet’s eyes, it’s unlikely that the thought would even occur to the little ball of fluff.

“It’s no different than any other day,” Angela Speck, co-chair of the AAS National Solar Eclipse Task Force, explained during a NASA briefing in June. “On a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun and therefore don’t damage their eyes, so on this day they’re not going to do it either. It is not a concern, letting them outside. All that’s happened is we’ve blocked out the sun, it’s not more dangerous. So I think that people who have pets want to think about that. I’m not going to worry about my cat.”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a veterinarian, author, and founder of pawcurious, echoed Speck’s statement, but allowed that there’s no such thing as being too cautious. “It’s hard for me to criticize such a well-meaning warning, because there’s really no harm in following the advice to keep pets inside during the eclipse,” Vogelsang told Snopes. “It’s better to be too cautious than not cautious enough. But in the interest of offering a realistic risk assessment, the likelihood of a pet ruining their eyes the same way a human would during an eclipse is much lower—not because the damage would be any less were they to stare at the sun, but because, from a behavior standpoint, dogs and cats just don’t have any interest in doing so. We tend to extrapolate a lot of things from people to pets that just doesn’t bear out, and this is one of them.

“I’ve seen lots of warnings from the astronomy community and the human medical community about the theoretical dangers of pets and eclipses, but I’m not sure if any of them really know animal behavior all that well," Vogelsang continued. "It’s not like there’s a big outcry from the wildlife community to go chase down coyotes and hawks and bears and give them goggles either. While we in the veterinary community absolutely appreciate people being concerned about their pets’ wellbeing, this is a non-issue for us.”

The bigger issue, according to several experts, would be with pets who are already sensitive to Mother Nature. "If you have the sort of pet that's normally sensitive to shifts in the weather, they might be disturbed by just the whole vibe because the temperature will drop and the sky will get dark,” Melanie Monteiro, a pet safety expert and author of The Safe-Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out, told TODAY.

“If [your pets] have learned some association with it getting darker, they will show that behavior or at a minimum they get confused because the timeframe does not correspond,” Dr. Carlo Siracusa of Penn Vet Hospital told CBS Philly. “You might put the blinds down, but not exactly when the dark is coming but when it is still light.” 

While Monteiro again reasserts that, "Dogs and cats don't normally look up into the sun, so you don't need to get any special eye protection for your pets,” she says that it’s never a bad idea to take some extra precautions. So if you’re headed out to an eclipse viewing party, why not do your pets a favor and leave them at home. They won’t even know what they’re missing.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

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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