Soiled Doves and Birth Control Pregnancy prevention in the Old West

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Good time girls.

Pregnancy could be a serious problem for prostitutes as it put them out of work for months so they would do whatever was necessary to keep from getting pregnant or aborting once they did.

The madams were usually skilled in keeping their girls from getting pregnant.

Knowledge of ovulation unknown until 1850 and books on the subject of birth control were considered obscene. Toward the end of the 19th Century physicians writing on the subject were subject to arrest.

Prostitutes weren’t the only ones who dealt with unwanted pregnancies. Isolated women in the West were the last to learn even what limited information was available.

Many a hapless woman clung to the old wives’ tale that a woman nursing couldn’t get pregnant. That led to the old lament, “one in the cradle, one on the breast and one on the way.”

Douching was quite common. Women douched with various substances such as alum, quinine, lemon juice and baking soda. I’ve heard of concoctions of Chinese herbs to mercury and arsenic. The seeds from Queen Ann’s Lace, a form of wild cucumber, was claimed to be an effective contraceptive as were olives. Herbs such as asafetida, juniper, pennyroyal, “squirting cucumber,” and wild carrots date back to Roman times. The effectiveness of some of these herbal potions has been amply confirmed by modern medical research.

Another way of preventing pregnancy was to use a sponge about the size of a walnut. It acted as a barrier. It was not proper to be too clear about their purpose. They were sold under the name, Ladies Silk Sponges, and women could discretely purchase these in a Sears and Roebuck catalogue.

Wilhelm Peter Mensinga, a German physician, is credited to have invented the first diaphragm in 1882.

The cervical cap was also designed by a German gynecologist, who noticed that farm families only had 2 – 3 kids because the midwives had placed a wooden block in front of the cervix. American women learned about this invention when the German immigrants
arrived. A copper penny could serve as a makeshift cervical cap.

Another commonly used method were condoms and sheaths. Condoms were made of animal skin (sheep gut), were imported from Europe to the United States but were pricy to purchase. This expensive price made condoms only accessible to the middle and
upper class, leaving the lower class without access to this control. But in the 1850s, vulcanized rubber was developed and the prices of condoms dropped.

Sheaths were similar to condoms; however, they were thicker and tied with a string at the end.

Folk remedies or “Granny medicine” dates back to ancient times. Roman women put a leather pouch filled with cat’s liver on their left foot during sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy. Some women believed that spitting three times into a frog’s mouth was a good
method of birth control. European women thought that they could prevent pregnancy by turning backwards a wheel of a mill at midnight. And, in many cultures women constantly wore various necklaces and amulets, which were supposed to have the power of controlling the act of conception. Women were advised to hold their breath and draw their bodies back during sex in order to stop the sperm from entering her body. It was also suggested a woman to jump backwards seven times after sexual intercourse or take
something to cause sneezing. Needless to say none of these were effective birth control devices.

Abstaining from sexual intercourse was the best method, since there was no chance for pregnancy. Abstinence wasn’t an option for a woman who was, as one lady of pleasure explained to a census taker, gainfully employed as a “ceiling watcher.”

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or email him at marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu.

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Marshall Trimble

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and the Wild West History Association’s vice president. His latest book is 2018’s Arizona Oddities: A Land of Anomalies and Tamales. Send your question, with your city/state of residence, to marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu or Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327.