Unwanted Pregnancy and Abortions in the West Seldom do you read about the kinds of contraceptives the women used to prevent unwanted pregnancies...

unwanted pregnancies in the Old West
French prostitute.

A True West reader wanted to know about preventing unwanted pregnancies in the Old West. There are many articles on “soiled doves,” but seldom do you read about the kinds of contraceptives the women used to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Or, she asked, “were there lots of kids running around the brothels?”

Pregnancy was 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 of aborting once they did. Many ended up sterile from catching gonorrhea or syphilis.

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

Douching was quite common. Women douched with various substances such as alum, quinine, lemon juice and baking soda. I’ve heard of concoctions ranging from 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 was olive. Herbs such as asafetida, juniper, pennyroyal, “squirting cucumber,” and wild carrot date back to Roman times. The effectiveness of these herbal potions has been amply confirmed by modern medical research.

Folk remedies or “Granny medicine” also 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. It was also suggested a woman to jump backwards seven times after sexual intercourse or take something to cause sneezing. Needless to say, these didn’t prevent pregnancy.

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 when the German immigrants arrived. A copper penny could also serve as a makeshift cervical cap.

During the 1870s, a New York newspaper reported there some 200 full time abortionists working in the city.

Records are scarce about what happened if there were any children but we do know the streets in large cities were filled with thousands of orphans. Many were rounded up by relief societies and brought west to be adopted by farm families.

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.

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