The basic concept of the condom has existed for hundreds of years, but the modern-day design of the individual, foiled-wrapped packets we use today came much later in the evolution of the condom. The reasons for condom use changed throughout its evolution as well. The one consistency for the condom throughout history is that the origin of the word “condom” is still unknown.
Egyptian paintings depict condom use as far back as 950 B.C.E., putting the age of the most basic condom at roughly 3,000-years-old. The Romans used oiled animal bladders and lengths of animal intestines as penile sheaths. In other parts of the world, such as Japan, early condoms were made from fine leather. These primitive penile sheaths were used to prevent venereal diseases and were not used to avoid unwanted pregnancies, because, historically speaking, men considered pregnancy to be solely a female concern.
In the mid-1500s, Italian physician and anatomy professor Gabriello Falloppio designed a medicated linen sheath that fit over the glans, or the head of the penis, that was secured in place by the foreskin. This sheath was intended to prevent users from contracting venereal diseases, especially syphilis which was spreading rapidly throughout Asia and Europe at the time. Falloppio’s invention was the first clearly documented prophylactic for the penis. According to his records, Falloppio tested his sheath on “over a thousand men, with complete success.”
Soon after Falloppio’s invention was created, a version was created for circumcised men in which the sheath, a standard six inches in length, was tied securely at the base of the penis with a pink ribbon. Other condoms at the time were made from animal gut or fish membranes.
The physician to England’s King Charles II (1630-1685) was Dr. Condom, so named because he was the English earl of Condom. History gives Dr. Condom credit with perfecting the condom. He is said to have improved the sensitivity of the penile sheaths by making them from stretched oiled sheep intestine. Condom’s penile sheath attracted the attention of noblemen as his version was far superior at preventing the spread of sexual diseases than other available prophylactics at the time. Just like the earlier penile sheaths, Condom’s version did nothing to prevent pregnancy.
In the early 18th century, slaughterhouses discarded an abundance of animal organs. Enterprising butchers repurposed discarded intestines into penile sheaths, called “skins.” This version of the condom became the world’s first widely sold contraceptive product.
In 1844, American Charles Goodyear was granted a patent for vulcanized rubber, and this new process would help the condom industry start a period of tremendous growth. The first rubber condoms were made available in the 1870s, and were quickly given the nickname “rubbers.” Rubber condoms were manufactured by placing pieces of rubber around a penis-shaped mold and then dipping the mold into a chemical solution to cure the rubber. These rubber condoms were thick and expensive, but could stretch and helped to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases as well as unplanned pregnancies. This was the first time a condom was designed to do both of those functions. Men who used “rubbers” were instructed to wash them before and after sexual intercourse and to reuse them until the rubber became cracked or torn.
By 1870, condoms were widely available in the United States through drug suppliers, pharmacies, doctors, dry goods retailers and mail-order houses, with a high percentage being sold via mail order. Suddenly, in 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act, named for Anthony Comstock, who was a highly moral, very religious man who basically felt that condoms encouraged sexual promiscuity. The Comstock Act quickly paralyzed the growing condom industry as it outlawed sending any “article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever for the prevention of conception” through the mail.
The Comstock Act forced condoms to go underground. Thus, the black market condom industry was born. Condoms were now marketed as sheaths, skins, shields, capotes and “rubber goods for gents.” Since big condom manufacturers were much better targets for federal prosecution under the Comstock Act, multitudes of mom-and-pop condom manufacturers were in business in the United States during the early 19th century. It would take over 60 years for the American courts to overturn the parts of the Comstock Act that prohibited the mailing of contraceptives.
The condom industry was further revolutionized by Julius Fromm, a Jewish entrepreneur who emigrated from Russia to Germany as a child. Fromm created the world’s first brand name condom, the Fromms Act, which he patented in 1916. Just six years later, Fromm began mass production of his condom brand and sold his product in Germany as well as internationally. Unfortunately, during the Nazi regime in Germany, Fromm was forced to sell his booming business for a mere fraction of what it was actually worth. After this disaster, Fromm immigrated to London. (Read more about Fromm and his history in the book Fromm: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis by Gotz Aly and Michael Sontheimer.)
Fromm’s American counterpart was Julius Schmid (born Schmidt), who worked in a sausage-casing firm in New York. Schmid launched a lucrative side business selling “skins,” and, by the 1920s, he had become one of the largest condom producers in America, manufacturing the brands Ramses and Sheiks.
One of Schmid’s competitors, Merle Leland Youngs, first produced the Trojan brand condom in 1916 through his company, Fay and Youngs. In 1919, Youngs renamed the company Youngs Rubber Corporation and debuted the Trojan brand condom with the image of a Trojan helmet on its packaging. The Trojan brand uses the iconic helmet design to this day.
In the 1930s, condoms made from latex were introduced to the world. These condoms were thinner, disposable and sterile. Latex allowed for designs such as ribs and tickle-fingers along the shaft, meant for her pleasure, and a thimble sperm cap, known today as a reservoir, at the condom’s tip for reduction of the risk of pregnancy. Only water-based lubricants should be used with latex condoms as oil-based lubricants will break down the latex and significantly reduce its prophylactic value.
An aggressive advertising campaign, which favored condom use to stop the spread of venereal diseases among troops, by the American military during World War II helped give American condom manufacturers such a boost that condom production doubled between 1939 and 1946. Despite this growth in public use and acceptance, condoms could not completely shake the taboo that the Comstock Act had bestowed upon them.
One remarkable advance in condom manufacturing occurred after World War II. In 1999, a Cranbury, New Jersey, company named Carter-Wallace debuted the polyurethane condom. These condoms are made from plastic and are a good alternative for people who are allergic to latex. Polyurethane condoms are usually thinner, stronger, less constricting, better transmitters of heat and more expensive than latex condoms.
In the early 2000s, American Danny Resnic used government funding to explore the possibility of manufacturing a condom out of silicone, which is a flexible, durable material. Silicone is currently used to make a wide variety of products, from kitchen spatulas to vibrating sex toys. Resnic’s product, which he now calls the Origami condom, is folded rather than rolled and has yet to hit the market.
Coripa Condoms, which has manufactured condoms since 1920, is the world’s only company that offers “custom fit” condoms for men. Based in Germany and in the United States, Coripa now offers over 55 condom sizes, all available online only, with a handy EASY FIT ruler available on their website that a man can use to measure his penis for more accurate condom sizing during the ordering process.
No matter what brand of condom a person prefers to use, proper use is the key to preventing pregnancy and to reducing the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Latex and polyurethane condoms are meant to roll onto the penis. The condoms roll in only one direction. A condom put on “backwards” should be discarded immediately as the outside of the condom has touched the penis and this destroys the condom’s potential at preventing sexually transmitted diseases. For the best protection, toss the condom that was put on incorrectly and start with a new one.
Be sure to use the proper type of lubrication for the condom being used (for example, water-based lubricant for latex condoms) and use adequate amounts of lubricant to prevent the condom from drying out. A dry condom can rip during use. Many condom brands are available pre-lubricated in a wide variety of styles. If one brand does not feel right physically, try other brands until the perfect condom is discovered. Remember to enjoy the experimentation along the way.