atm-logoI enjoyed reading the November article on Soiled Doves, but nothing was mentioned about contraception. What did they do to prevent pregnancy?

Barbara Oline
Taos, New Mexico

Pregnancy was a serious problem for prostitutes as it put them out of work for months; they did whatever was necessary to keep from getting pregnant. The madams were usually skilled in the means of contraception.

Women douched with various substances such as alum, quinine, lemon juice and baking soda. Some made concoctions out of Chinese herbs, as well as quicksilver (mercury) and arsenic, and the herbs asafetida, juniper, pennyroyal and squirting cucumber, which date back to Roman times. The effectiveness of these latter herbal potions has been amply confirmed by medical research.

Many ladies of the night might have also used a diaphragm or a cervical cap (known then as a “womb veil”). More rare would be the client who would wear a condom; if he did, early ones were made out of sheep intestines, while rubber versions were available by the 1840s. One option unknown to the client was a method by which a woman would hold the penis between her thighs to simulate intercourse. This tactic was allegedly quite common among soiled doves.

The last resort: abortion. The seeds from Queen Anne’s Lace, wild carrot, was claimed to be an effective abortifacient. During the 1870s, a New York newspaper reported some 200 full time abortionists worked in the city—and abortion safety was quite high. Undoubtedly, some abortionists (frequently women) took their talents westward as well.

But anecdotal evidence indicates a fair number of prostitutes did have children. Unfortunately, many of those kids grew up in tough conditions and ended up out on the streets.


Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian. His latest book is Wyatt Earp: Showdown at Tombstone.  If you have a question, write:  Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at

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