Let’s take a trip into history, to a world that time and systemic hormone disruptors have forgotten–the world after the Comstock Act and before the legalization of diaphragms and cervical caps and the invention of the Pill. I will share with you the most interesting thing I learned in co-teaching a course on the History of Sexuality in America last term: American women were encouraged by the marketing geniuses at Lysol in the middle third of the twentieth century to use Lysol douches for both contraception and personal hygiene.
I had heard about the Lysol contraceptive douche, but until my colleague lectured on the subject, I had no clue that it was actively promoted for decades in degrading and fearmongering advertisements by the manufacturer. It was an enlightening moment for me and for the students when my co-teacher explained in her lecture that Lysol was very popular during the Depression, because it was 1) inexpensive, 2) probably something you had already lying around the house, and 3) didn’t require a physician’s assistance (unless it caused internal injuries!)
(Remember: I am not a modern U.S. historian. The only thing recommending contraception in my period of expertise, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is perhaps the fact that most were non-toxic, if also as ineffective as Lysol. The most dangerous “menstrual regulator” available was jumping off of fences or carrying heavy loads of wood, or eating too many juniper berries or drinking too much pennyroyal or squaw mint tea.)
Nicole Pasulka at Mother Jones, riffing on Andrea Tone’s Devices and Desires, has assembled a brief history of Lysol’s contraceptive application as well as a slideshow of the advertisements promoting the Lysol douche. Warning: this may be offensive and/or induce involuntary buttcheek clenching in women especially. Clicquez a vos risques! Pasulka explains:
[W]omen who couldn’t afford or gain access to medically administered birth control had to come up with their own strategies for staying baby free. Douching was cheap, accessible, and widely advertised as a feminine hygiene product; however, as Andrea Tone writes in the book Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, it was also the most common form of birth control from 1940 until 1960—when the oral contraceptive pill arrived on the market.
The most popular brand of douche was Lysol—an antiseptic soap whose pre-1953 formula contained cresol, a phenol compound reported in some cases to cause inflammation, burning, and even death. By 1911 doctors had recorded 193 Lysol poisonings and five deaths from uterine irrigation. Despite reports to the contrary, Lysol was aggressively marketed to women as safe and gentle. Once cresol was replaced with ortho-hydroxydiphenyl in the formula, Lysol was pushed as a germicide good for cleaning toilet bowls and treating ringworm, and Lehn & Fink’s, the company that made the disinfectant, continued to market it as safeguard for women’s “dainty feminine allure.”
Douching may have been cheaper than condoms or diaphragms and available over the counter in most drugstores, but it didn’t work. In a 1933 study, Tone writes, nearly half of the 507 women who used douching as a birth control method ended up pregnant.
But if false advertising with highly suspect results weren’t bad enough, the ads promoted a level of misogyny and female insecurity both laughable and frightening by today’s standards.
It’s good to remember the bad old days, ain’t it? I wonder if someone can scare up some old syringes and doucheing equipment to offer a little material culture flava? Oh gee: lookee here! (True story: when I tried to save a copy of this photo under the term “douchebag,” I was informed that I already had a photo called “douchebag” saved to my blog folder.) So here on the right is douchebag #2, something that looks like it came out of the 1940s or 1950s (via the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.)
Make no mistake, boys and girls: there’s no such thing as irrevocable progress. While I hope it’s true that the arc of history bends towards justice, there’s no guarantee that it will bend the right way in what’s left of our lifetimes. The United States lived nearly ninety years with the Comstock Act and before the release of the Pill, or about three reproductive lifetimes of carbolic acid and Lysol douches.
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