Silphium sounds like one of the coolest contraceptive options from the annals of history. It's basically a giant fennel plant, but this fennel was more popular in a liquid state as a form of contraception than, say, shaved in a salad -- at least for the ancient Greeks and Romans who relied on it to prevent conception and end pregnancy. In fact, they liked it so much as an effective population control method that they used the rare plant into extinction.
But what about the contraceptives in history that weren't so successful -- or were sometimes successful in spite of themselves? Let's begin. And please, don't try any of these.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that 18th-century lothario Giacomo Casanova had a few thoughts about birth control; he may have been the person who first discovered the contraceptive qualities of lemons.
Lemon juice contains citric acid, known today as a sperm-killer. In modern-day studies, lemon juice has been found to immobilize sperm in less than 60 seconds, making it an effective topical spermicide (or douche). Most sperm will take a day or two to reach and fertilize a waiting egg, though some may reach a waiting egg in as fast as 30 minutes, so it's not 100 percent effective. The lemon rind, too, was used as a barrier birth control method; insert half a lemon rind (squeeze out the juice and remove the pulp first) into the vagina and you've got yourself an ancient cervical cap.
Again, let's celebrate Giacomo Casanova's contributions to the advancement of birth control options -- this time, condoms made of animal guts. Sure, condoms fashioned out of animal or fish intestines as well as from linen are thought to have been used as long ago as in ancient Egypt (or even earlier), but it wasn't until the 1700s and Casanova where they were used to prevent pregnancy rather than just to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (or for ceremonial purposes).
More modern rubber condoms wouldn't hit the market until the mid-19th century, after Charles Goodyear discovered a method for vulcanizing rubber in 1839.
Squatting and Sneezing
The Ancient Greeks may have given us the roots of democracy, the first Olympic games and advances in architecture we continue to use in our modern society, but they also gave us this doozy of a way to prevent pregnancy: sneezing.
Greek physician Soranus may have doubted the contraceptive qualities of amulets, but he didn't shy away from suggesting trying to shake the sperm out before it could fertilize a waiting egg. Not only was sneezing recommended, but squatting, jumping up and down, or even kicking your feet against your own bum were prescribed as effective birth control methods. As we know now, even if you sneeze after sex you can still become pregnant.
Pennyroyal is an herb -- part of the mint family (Mentha pulgium) -- and the oil or extract from its leaves has been used throughout human history as an insect and flea repellent, a fragrance (in perfumes and in aromatherapies), as well as a food flavoring. Pennyroyal tea has also been used as a contraceptive, although it wasn't really used to prevent pregnancy; rather, it was more likely women used it as a tea after the fact, to attempt abortion. Did it work? A naturally-occurring plant compound called pulegone found in pennyroyal is now known to be toxic, and can cause seizures, induce a coma, cause liver and cardiovascular failure, and can injure multiple organs (and quickly, too). Sure, it may also stimulate the uterus to induce menstruation and terminate a pregnancy, but it may also kill you in the process.
Plaster of Hemlock
Hemlock has had multiple uses in history. In the 18th century, it was thought to cure cancer, relieve syphilis, treat bacterial infections such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis and cure tumors, among other health benefits. The ancient Greeks used it for prisoner executions.
In the 13th century, Portuguese physician Pedro Julião -- who went on to become Pope John XXI-- wrote a book, "Thesaurus Pauperum" (which translates to "Treasure of the Poor"), which was a collection of herbal remedies for the poor who needed medical knowledge or attention but didn't have the funds to visit a medical professional. Included in his herbal remedies were prescriptions for birth control methods, for both men and women, including one for a male contraceptive: a poultice or plaster of hemlock applied to the testicles before sex, which would allegedly make the testicles shrivel and diminish the libido.
Once upon a time, animal dung -- and crocodile dung in particular -- was considered to have special powers. This belief was especially popular among ancient Egyptian and Indian women. Part of its mysticism was its alleged ability to prevent conception, and women mixed it with honey (and maybe some sodium carbonate) and inserted the resulting ball as a vaginal pessary.
It may not have been superstition -- or, frankly, the odor -- surrounding the pessary that was an effective way to prevent pregnancy. As it turns out, dung has a high level of acidity, and its alkaline properties may have given it some effectiveness as a spermicide. The placement of the dung may have blocked some sperm from reaching their ultimate destination as well.
Here's one that's based more in magic than medically sound advice; in the Middle Ages, it was believed a woman could prevent pregnancy by wearing an amulet strapped to her thigh.
This special amulet was made from the testicles of a weasel (you'd need both), and/or bone removed from the right side of an all-black cat (this was important; the cat had to be completely black) and some earwax from a mule. According to superstition, a woman could also avoid getting pregnant by wearing those weasel's testicles around her neck (if, perhaps, she didn't have any mule's earwax or an all-black cat).
Acacia and Honey Suppositories
Ancient Egyptians may have been one of the first populations to use barrier method-style birth control. There's evidence written in the Ebers Papyrus -- as far back as 1550 BCE -- of women using vaginal suppositories made with an acacia, date and honey paste as a way to avoid pregnancy.
Fibers such as wool or cotton would have been moistened with a mixture of acacia leaves, dates and honey and inserted similarly to a tampon. Crazy as it sounds, this suppository -- which when in place acted like a modern-day cervical cap -- was actually effective. The fiber would physically block sperm from entering the uterus, and honey would hold the contraceptive in place, but it's the acacia that gave this birth control device its contraceptive qualities. Recent studies of acacia (Acacia auriculiformis) find that when fermented, it contains lactic acids, or triterpenoid saponins (including Acaciaside-A and Acaciaside-B). Lactic acid negatively impacts sperm motility (the ability to successfully swim toward an egg), making this one of the first spermicides.
Douching to prevent pregnancy was a big deal for ancient Roman and Greek women, and the method carried on even in our modern society (albeit with a more carbonated twist). Enter the Coca-Cola douche, popular during the 1950s and 1960s for its glass bottle packaging and "shake and shoot" method.
Surprisingly, in 2008 it was discovered there is some truth to the urban legend: Coca-Cola actually does kill sperm -- the best results were achieved with Diet Coke formulations. Coke made with sugar will kill sperm well enough in a test tube, but in vivo it can't kill sperm fast enough, allowing enough sperm through to be a sketchy contraceptive choice (and that's not including the potential health problems introduced when you put soft drinks in your vagina) [source: Anderson].
You may use Lysol for cleaning and disinfecting, but there once was a time when it was also considered contraception.
Lysol advertised its disinfectant as a feminine hygiene product in the early 20th century, and between 1930 and 1960, when the first oral contraceptive appeared on the market, douching -- and the Lysol douche -- was the most popular choice of birth control for women [source: DeNoon]. Until the early 1950s Lysol contained an ingredient called cresol, a compound known to cause burns and blistering, inflammation, poisoning and even death -- the very opposite of the gentle formula advertised by the manufacturer. After 1953, they changed the formula, although it was still harmful when used on or in the human body. In addition to its toxic effects, Lysol wasn't actually an effective contraceptive.
Mom or mother-in-law live with you and the hubby? She might be interfering with your reproduction rates. Find about this new study at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Crazy Contraceptives From History
One of my favorite moments researching these crazy contraceptives wasn't the rabbit anuses, the mercury drinking or the opium diaphragms (none of which actually made it into the article, but are still just as crazy as the ones that did). Nor was it the horrifying realization that women once douched with Lysol, and that some continue to douche with Diet Coke. It was about silphium, the plant the ancient Greeks and Romans used -- and used up -- as birth control. Specifically the idea that silphium seeds were heart-shaped, and may be the reason we associate the heart-shaped symbol with love still today.
More Great Links
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- Anderson, Deborah. "Coca-Cola douches and contraception." BMJ. Vol. 337. Dec. 18, 2008. (March 21, 2014) http://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a2873
- AVERT. "Condoms: Effectiveness, History and Availability." (March 21, 2012) http://www.avert.org/condoms-effectiveness-history-and-availability.htm
- Brookes, Daniel E. "Hemlock Poisoning." Medscape. March 3, 2014. (March 21, 2014) http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/821362-overview
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- DeNoon, Daniel. "A History of Birth Control." WebMD. Aug. 6, 2001. (March 21, 2014) http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=51170
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- Empen, Kathy. "Conception Slideshow: From Egg to Embryo." WebMD. Sept. 2, 2011. (March 21, 2014) http://www.webmd.com/baby/ss/slideshow-conception
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- Kolata, Gina. "In Ancient Times, Flowers and Fennel For Family Planning." The New York Times. March 8, 1994. (March 21, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/1994/03/08/science/in-ancient-times-flowers-and-fennel-for-family-planning.html
- London Medical Gazette: Or, Journal of Practical Medicine. Vol. 19 Pages 767-770. (March 21, 2014) http://books.google.com/books/about/London_Medical_Gazette.html?id=UrXJcWbe8kUC
- McDonell, Keelin. "The Shape of My Heart." Slate. February 2006. (March 21, 2014) http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2006/02/the_shape_of_my_heart.html
- Museum of Contraception and Abortion (MUVS). "Contraception - Vaginal Barriers: Lemon Half." (March 21, 2014) http://en.muvs.org/contraception/barriers/zitronenhaelfte-id2518/
- National Institutes of Health - MedlinePlus. "Pennyroyal." Dec. 24, 2012. (March 21, 2014) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/480.html
- National Institutes of Health - National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "Pennyroyal Oil (Mentha Pulegium)." (March 21, 2014) http://livertox.nlm.nih.gov/Pennyroyal.htm
- Pal, Durba; Chakraborty, Pratip; Ray, H.N.; Pal, B.C.; Mitra, Debashis; and Syed N. Kabir. "Acaciaside-B-enriched fraction of Acacia auriculiformis is a prospective spermicide with no mutagenic property." Reproduction. Vol. 138. Pages 453-462. September 1, 2009. (March 21, 2014) http://www.reproduction-online.org/content/138/3/453.full
- Pasulka, Nicole. "When Women Used Lysol as Birth Control." Mother Jones. February 2012. (March 21, 2014) http://www.motherjones.com/slideshows/2012/02/when-women-used-lysol-birth-control/lysol-douche-cobweb
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