|February 8th, 2000
|About that Condom | Debra Hyde
|Recently, I came across the Rochester, New York news story of
a condom discovered within a time capsule from 1873. The condom,
found in a sealed envelope and placed within a book, surprised
city officials and its presence was quickly labeled the work of
But something about the date, 1873, sounded familiar to me and
I wondered if the condom planting was really the prank that everyone
assumed it to be. As soon as my kids were out the door to school,
a quick online search confirmed my suspicions: 1873 was the year
which saw the passage of the Comstock Law, a piece of legislation
that effectively made contraception and family planning illegal
The condom, in my estimation, wasnt the work of a prankster but
the act of a protester, and Im surprised that the media didnt
spot the correlation.
Although condoms have existed in some form or other since the
days of the pharaohs, the rubber condom came along in the 1840s
and its use skyrocketed after the Civil War. Vulcanized rubber
had transformed American life, and, with reusable rubber condoms
easily available, American moralists feared that sex might be
reduced from its Biblically proscribed status to that of a mere
recreation. (A post-war boom in prostitution at the same time
didnt help matters any.)
And so the Comstock Law followed.
Behind the law stood Anthony Comstock, a New York City moral crusader
better known for book busts and burnings. In tandem with the Comstock
Laws passage, he organized the New York Society for the Suppression
of Vice and, as a U.S. deputy, became something of a 19th-century
J. Edgar Hoover, raiding warehouses, printing presses, and post
offices with impunity. In the ensuing years, Comstock himself
would see some 3500 people prosecuted.
Perhaps our protester could see what loomed on the horizon and
slipped the condom into the time capsule as some New York upstate/downstate
gesture of disdain. (And no wonder the condom wasnt inventoried
in the time capsule it was an illegal item!)
In fact, maybe the effects of Comstocks efforts had already taken
hold when our Anonymous Protester (aka A.P. herewith) made the
quick slip. Maybe A.P. resorted to a sheep intestine condom because
rubber condoms were nowhere to be found. Condom seizures via warehouse
raids became quite common in the 1870s and I saw one figure that
claimed some 65,000 condoms had been seized. (Unfortunately, its
unclear whether the number was arrived at during initial seizures
over a period of years.) At any rate, its conceivable that A.P.
wondered if wed even recognize a condom in the year 2000, given
the state of affairs in 1873.
And how would A.P. view the state of reproductive rights in the
year 2000? Certainly, the condoms continued existence would be
cause to celebrate. And I bet A.P would find the vast array of
condoms (and stores dedicated to selling condoms and only condoms)
downright amazing. But how would A.P. view the decades of struggle
it took to make condoms, and other forms of birth control, legally
and easily available?
Would A.P. be discouraged to learn that Comstocks stranglehold
on American society proved so tight that twenty-four states enacted
local statutes based on the federal law? That only a few people
openly challenged these laws until after his death in 1915? That
even though women like Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett fought
Comstock in the courts, their battle would intensify only after
Even then, decades would pass until the Supreme Court would strike
down the last vestiges of the Comstockery. How would A.P. feel
to learn that condoms would remain illegal in some states until
1965 when the Supreme Court finally struck down state bans on
the prescription, sale and use of contraceptives? And that the
very last birth control ban -- a Massachusetts law which forbid
unmarried individuals the right to birth control -- would be overturned
in 1972, almost a hundred years after A.P. planted the condom
in the time capsule.
I could, however, provide some levity at this point. I could tell
A.P. how shocked my parents were to find a birth control ban in
effect when they moved from wild Nevada to staid Connecticut.
And how, for years, my parents staged Friday night family trips
to Massachusetts where we kids spent our allowances while my dad
disappeared to buy condoms.
Still, I dont think A.P. would be happy to know that were still
fighting over condoms and morality even now. It seems as if
weve forgotten the downside of moralism enough to allow the likes
of Rudy Guiliani to tiptoe in Anthony Comstocks faded footsteps.
That we now have a sexually-transmitted disease that kills and
even though condoms can halt its progress, todays moralists preach
failure, failure, failure! loudly enough to overshadow rational
thinking and scientific fact. That the culture war of a century
ago caught its second wind a full century later when the Supreme
Court issued its ruling on Roe v. Wade.
On the up side, the genie cant easily go back into the bottle,
no matter how contentious American views on sexual freedom might
be. Birth control is here to stay, thanks to numerous Supreme
Court rulings, thanks to mass production and mass marketing, and
thanks to mass use. And if that doesnt cheer A.P. up, Ill reveal
my own little family secret: The use of condoms is a matter of
pride in my family. In two generations, weve logged almost forty
years of successful condom use.
Family history aside, let me thank A.P. for the condom gesture
of 1873. You see, that gesture renewed my appreciation for the
history of reproductive rights in America. It made me review our
past and realize that weve grown complacent and uninformed about
Comstockery and the fight for family planning freedoms. And that
we dont realize how little has changed in the fight between moralism
and personal freedom.
Just as important, Ive gained an understanding of the power of
protest as well -- so much so that if moralists should ever seriously
threaten the individuals access to birth control, I know just
what Ill do: Ill start a letter-writing campaign. And Ill stuff
a condom into every envelope.
Copyright 2000, Debra Hyde. All rights reserved.
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