The Perverse History of the American Condom

Then, again.
Jan. 4 2013 5:45 AM

Barriers To Entry

Porn, protectionism, and the black-market origins of the American condom industry.

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Many women, deprived of other economic opportunities, turned to birth-control bootlegging. Antoinette Hon, a Polish immigrant, specialized in the mail-order distribution of “womb suppositories” and “douching powders” from her base in South Bend, Ind. Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American birth-control movement, colluded with her husband, James Noah Slee, to smuggle Mensinga diaphragms into the country. Slee, the president of the 3-in-One Oil Company, used the cover of his business to ship the diaphragms from Europe to Montreal, and from there the shipments were smuggled across the border hidden in the company’s oil drums.

As with pornography traders, Comstock and his agents relied heavily on undercover purchases and “buy and bust” stings. But their effectiveness was limited by privacy protections and court rulings against entrapment. Much to Comstock’s frustration, judges and juries took a more lenient attitude toward bootleg birth control than to smut smuggling. His agents made fewer than five birth-control arrests per year between March 1873 and March 1898. Black market contraceptives remained widely available and affordable.

World War I proved to be a decisive turning point. Concern about sexually transmitted diseases was elevated to the status of a security threat, for which the condom was viewed as an urgently needed shield. Germany was Europe’s largest producer of rubber condoms, so Allied troops looked to alternative sources. Outlawed U.S. producers such as Julius Schmidt became illicit exporters for the war effort in Europe. The American company Youngs Rubber began to produce Trojan condoms in 1916. According to Merle Youngs, the company’s founder, condoms were “unofficially” sold in many government-run canteens despite the military’s prohibition. The 4 million American men who took part in World War I brought back a greater familiarity with and acceptance of condom use.

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Anxiety and concern about venereal disease ultimately trumped Victorian taboos. Legal rulings began to roll back the Comstock law. In 1918, Judge Frederick Crane overturned a conviction against Sanger and ruled that condom use was legal and not “indecent or immoral” if prescribed by a doctor to prevent disease. But since there was no real enforcement of the prescription requirement—condoms marked “for the prevention of disease only” could even be bought at pool parlors and gas stations—the need for medical justification was moot. In a July 1930 ruling by a New York appeals court, producers of contraceptives who promised to sell only to licensed doctors and druggists were exempted from federal prosecution. Contraceptives were not removed from U.S. obscenity statutes until 1970, a century after the Comstock Act. Until 1971 it was still illegal for a layperson to import contraceptives.

American porn publishers and condom makers weren’t the only unintended beneficiaries of U.S. import bans. Prohibition helped domestic moonshiners who would otherwise have been unable to compete with much higher quality brand-name imports. And America’s enormous marijuana industry, possibly the nation’s leading cash crop, has thrived during decades of de facto pot protectionism. Because it is bulky and smelly, marijuana is the easiest drug to interdict along the nation’s borders. The vast majority of border drug busts involve marijuana. Plenty still gets through, but the need to get past border officials and their drug-sniffing dogs has inflated prices and given domestic producers an advantage over their foreign competitors. No one cheers more loudly when Mexican marijuana crops are eradicated and shipments seized at the border than American pot growers.  

Peter Andreas is Professor of Political Science and Interim Director of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. This essay is adapted from his new book, Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, published by Oxford University Press.