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The humble little condom indeed. None other than that admirable Irishman George Bernard Shaw calls it the greatest invention of the nineteen century, a claim that may get only the century wrong. In fact it's not a simple matter to know when it was invented and for what purpose(s). Egyptian men wore "penis sacks", sometimes including a "testicle pouch", though probably to protect against sunburn or bug bites. (13) Our author thinks it's possible the Greek tyrant Pisistratus used a condom of unknown design or manufacture as it has been reported he had sex with his wife, ". . . not according to custom." (21) Other meanings of this expression, however, could be more likely. Roman soldiers are reported to have covered their triumphant members with the skin and sinew of their vanquished enemies. A twelfth-century Jewish physician recommended, to prevent conception, that the penis be dipped in, ". . . the pure juice of the onion." (39). Shinto priests used their skills of origami or paper folding to fashion condoms in the likenesses of tigers, bears and lions, ". . . meant to bring out the beast in any man." (62). But perhaps this is more than you need to know.
Well then, from what did the word "condom" arise? The standard story has it coming from a seventeenth century English physician, Dr. Condum, who served Charles II. Our author is not convinced. She thinks rather, that the term derives from the Latin, ". . . condus means both preserve and receptacle." (71), and in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare has Hector state, ". . . Your quondam wife swears still by Venus' glove." (72). By this time the condom was clearly a birth control device, shaped from sewn linen or bladders of fish or animals. But these materials were rough and had to be treated in chemicals that often burned one or both of their beneficiaries. In 1837 Charles Goodyear devised a way to "vulcanize" rubber and our stretchy little miracle was ready for mass production, if not mass approval. If there is still someone who has not Wikipedia'd "French ticklers" the lowdown is to be found herein with further mentions of le porc-epic (the porcupine), le cocorico (the cock-a-doodle-do), and le bibi-chatouilleur (the baby tickler).
Collier does a nice job covering the crusade of Anthony Comstock, backed by a gaggle of New York businessmen, that resulted in the Comstock Act of 1872, a nearly complete prohibition of discussing, selling or manufacturing condoms (145). Susan Langer's courageous campaigns are duly covered, though no mention of Bill Baird. Finally we read of the controversies surrounding condom provision and promotion in the two world wars, for Aids prevention and the contemporary abstinence-only movement.
The topics here are covered lightly and with an eye, though not always an ear, for humor. It is not a serious work of history or sociology. There is no overarching argument or analytic point of view. For example, one could envision a tract connecting some societies' ambivalent attitudes toward sexuality to the social ups and downs of the happy sheath. This is not such a book. But neither does the author employ the amateur historian's penchant for attaching wide explanatory power to singular and narrow causes. (As your reviewer once did in a long-ago college history paper pinning vast tracks of European history on the outcome in 1202 of the incident at Mirabeau.)
Finally, the production of the book oddly resembles a college textbook with numerous shadowed sidebars containing a variety summaries, anecdotes and quotes, as well as reproductions of condom ads, posters and other material. It is not clear who the relevant audience is. I expect it will be used largely as a reference work to mine by those writing accounts of the various aspects and consequences of this miraculous little invention.
© 2008 John D. Mullen
John D. Mullen is Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College in Oakdale, New York. He is the author of the widely read Kierkegaard's Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age, the logic text Hard Thinking: The Re-Introduction of Logic into Everyday Life, and (with Byron M. Roth) Decision Making: Its Logic and Practice.
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