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12 Bizarre Facts About The History of Birth Control

Image Credit: Bryancalabro via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The quest to separate sex from baby-making is an ancient one. From drinking small amounts of poison to shoving dung, rock salt, or oil up the hoo-ha, ladies and gentlemen have been trying to get it on without the responsibility of bearing children for millennia. It’s only been in the last century or so that we’ve really gotten it right, developing modern drugs and implantable devices that can stop sperm from fertilizing an egg with precision and reliability. But the path to making it easy to choose when exactly to have a child (or not to have one at all) hasn’t always been a smooth one. Here are just a few surprising, disturbing, and downright bizarre facts from the history of human research into non-reproductive sex.

1. The Pill wasn’t the first oral contraceptive.

Long before hormonal pills were readily available to women of childbearing age, eating and drinking certain substances served as a rudimentary form of birth control (along with various other fascinating methods). The residents of Cyrene, a North African city-state in the Greek and Roman Empires, ate a plant called silphion (and harvested it to extinction). Some ancient women ate pomegranate seeds to prevent unwanted pregnancies—inspired by the legend of Persephone—or ingested pennyroyal, which is toxic in higher doses. Recent research has shown these techniques to be at least somewhat effective, though other ancient methods, like the Chinese practice of drinking mercury, were downright dangerous.

2. The Talmud OKs the use of contraceptive sponges.

The ancient Jewish text recommends using a sponge soaked in vinegar to block semen in a few select cases: if a girl is too young to bear children, or if a woman is already pregnant or nursing.

3. The idea for the IUD may have come from a camel.

Ancient Arab camel owners reportedly placed small stones in the uteruses of their animals to prevent pregnancy, though this is likely just a legend. However, animals have played a vital role in the development of intrauterine devices. In 1909, a Polish doctor named Richard Richter published the first paper on the successful use of an IUD created from the guts of a silkworm.

4. No IUD has been designed by a woman.

A Grafenberg IUD designed in the 1920s. Image Credit: Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Though ancient reproductive medicine was generally a woman’s domain, practiced by midwives, gynecology eventually became a standardized medical practice under the domain of the medical establishment (largely dominated by men). Activists like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger were instrumental in the fight for easily available birth control, but most of the people involved in developing modern birth control have been men. The IUD, which sits inside the uterus, has been designed by people without uteruses (which may be how some of the devices ended up looking like implantable shark teeth).

As an IUD designer told reporters Lucy Vernasco and Arikia Millikan in their excellent history of the IUD over on Vice:

"When I was in school, [women] were discriminated against. They weren’t accepted," said Dr. Jack Lippes, designer of the Lippes Loop, a once-prominent player in the progression of better, safer IUDs. He listed off all the men who’ve historically made the IUDs. "They’re all males, right."

5. Diaphragms were once known as “womb veils.”

In the late 1800s, American women had some access to early versions of the female condom. These diaphragms and cervical caps were sometimes called “womb veils” or even a “mechanical shield for ladies,” as historian Janet Farrell Brodie writes in her book Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America.

6. Birth control wasn’t legal for everyone until 1972.

While contraceptives like the Pill were available to married couples looking to plan their families, laws against distributing contraceptives to single people were still on the books until the 1970s. The U.S. Supreme Court finally brought birth control to the masses in Eisenstadt v. Baird, arguing that treating married and unmarried people differently violated the Equal Protection Clause. In the case, William Baird had been charged with a felony for giving Emko Vaginal Foam to a woman after a Boston University lecture on birth control.

7. An IUD can rip a sperm’s head off.

Database Center for Life Science (DBCLS) via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

IUDs work in a variety of different ways, mainly by making the uterus a terrible place for sperm. Copper can act as a spermicide, and non-hormonal copper IUDs have been known to rip sperm heads from tails. 

8. We’re still arguing about how an IUD works. 

While the IUD is one of the most effective contraceptives on the market, with an efficacy rate of 99 percent, scientists still aren’t precisely sure of the method through which it prevents pregnancy in some cases. The IUD largely hinders sperm mobility and function (see: ripping heads off), keeping the sperm from ever reaching the egg. However, if by chance a sperm does make it to the egg, the IUD thins the cervical mucus to keep the embryo from implanting in the uterus—which is why some lawmakers and craft stores argue (contrary to scientific research) that IUDs are a method of abortion.

9. The Pill’s active ingredient comes from a yam.

In the 1950s, a Mexico City-based company called Syntex synthesized progestin, the main hormone in birth control pills, from a wild Mexican yam called barbasco. Carl Djerassi, the chemist responsible for the breakthrough, is now heralded as one of the fathers of the Pill.

10. Condoms and tires have more in common than you thought.

Modern condoms wouldn’t be possible without Charles Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanized rubber. Ancient incarnations were made with linen and animal intestines, and were typically aimed at reducing the risk of disease, rather than preventing pregnancy. Goodyear patented his method of shaping and strengthening rubber in 1844, and the first rubber condom was produced a decade later. Latex versions, however, weren't invented until 1920.

11. The Pill has a four-week cycle because of the Catholic Church.

John Rock, (far left) one of the inventors of the Pill, in 1948 Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution via

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Most birth control pills feature a three-week cycle of active pills followed by one week of placebo pills made of sugar. There’s no biological underpinning that dictates this cycle. Rather, it is the design of John Rock, a devout Catholic doctor who conducted the first human trials of the birth control pill, and biologist Gregory Pincus. Rock argued that the Pill was a “natural” form of contraception, using hormones that occur naturally in the female body almost like a pharmacological extension of the Catholic-endorsed rhythm method—and thus should be accepted by the Catholic Church. (Needless to say, his argument was unsuccessful.) In an era when birth control was still quite controversial—the Pill wouldn’t be legal for unmarried couples in all states until more than a decade after its 1960 approval by the FDA—the researchers speculated that making it seem like birth control wasn’t interfering with the natural menstrual cycle would make it more palatable to the public.

However, the period that women get during the placebo week isn’t even a real period—it’s a withdrawal response from discontinuing the hormones. It’s perfectly healthy to skip your period by continuing to take the active pills.

12. The first trials of the Pill in humans involved test subjects who couldn’t technically consent.

Starting in 1954, gynecologist John Rock and biologist Gregory Pincus began tests of synthetic oral progesterone, or birth control pills. While 50 of Rock’s infertility patients volunteered, the drug was also tested on 28 psychiatric patients at Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts. At the time, anti-obscenity laws in Massachusetts prevented the researchers from putting out a public call for volunteers.

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The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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