Viveka Portman’s latest novel, The Widow Of Red Lion Row, her heroine has to become a condom manufacturer in 19th century London. In researching for her book Viveka found out many interesting things about the history of the condom…
We are all so used to Regency romance that glitters and glosses over the less savoury aspects of the human condition, and that’s fine because it’s fantasy, right? But… if you’re anything like me, you might have a niggling curiosity about those things left unspoken, things like consent, birth control, and venereal disease – most of which are conspicuously absent in most historical romances. Not so in my latest novel The Widow of Red Lion Row.
Mrs Margaret Forsythe finds herself fallen from her place in society, and in a desperate attempt to survive commences an unusual enterprise, condom making.
‘Condoms?’ I hear you ask. ‘Aren’t they a modern invention?’ Not at all. The link between sex and pregnancy, and sex and disease, is as ancient as time, and let’s not forget – humans are an inventive lot.
Condoms – Johnny caps, Jimmy hats or French envelopes – have been around a lot longer than most people realise. Some historians argue that penis coverings for contraception and disease control date back at least 11,000 years, as evidenced in France, where an erotic cave painting hints at an animal-skin-covered phallus. Egyptologists argue that it was the ancient Egyptians who created the condom by using the linen on their loin cloths as an impromptu disease shield.
However, it wasn’t until the 1400s that condoms in a form we would recognise began to appear. Glans condoms (that covered just the head of the penis) were made in East Asia out of shell (ouch!) or oiled paper and silk. These eventually developed into the more recognisable ‘full length’ condom.
The first written evidence of the use of condoms specifically to prevent syphilis was in 1575, in an article by anatomist Gabriele Falloppio (after whom the Fallopian tube is named!). Condoms could be made with linen or silk, but most commonly animal gut, with a ribbon around the base to keep it in place during ‘relations’. These animal gut condoms had to be prepared for action by moistening with lotion or milk. Also, they could be reused multiple times after washing and re-drying… yay for recycling!
The oldest gut condom ever found dates to 1642 AD. It was found in Dudley Park, England in an excavated cesspit. The first rubber condom in the form we are familiar with was made by Charles Goodyear (that’s right Mr Goodyear Tyres!) in 1839.
Historically, venereal disease could mean a slow hideous death sentence, but thankfully, there have been enterprising individuals whose imagination and foresight created the condoms that are so ubiquitous with safe sex today.
While I want my readers to enjoy a love story, I also want them to get real history. Readers should know that married women had no property rights until the 1880s, there was no concept of ‘consent’ in marriage, (just so you know, marital rape wasn’t considered a crime in the UK until 1992), and that condoms existed to keep people safe.
So, when you settle down to indulge in your next Bridgerton binge, or sink into the luxury of a ton ball, know that those stories are based in a real time, where real people lived and loved… and just maybe your rakish duke is pox-free due to some industrious widow’s new and scandalous enterprise.
About the author: Viveka Portman
Viveka Portman is an author of romantic erotic fiction, and has a fascination about times past. With a bachelor degree in anthropology, Viveka weaves historical fact into fiction to create lively, realistic and thrilling tales, sure to titillate and engage the most discerning reader. Considered an upstanding member of society, Viveka does not make a habit of eavesdropping, gossiping or making vulgar displays of impropriety – except, that is, in writing.
Don’t miss her latest book: The Widow Of Red Lion Row
In the slums of London, she’ll do almost anything to survive …
London, 1810. Margaret Forsythe never expected to become a condom maker. But she is a widow, and due to her late husband’s careless will, she has lost everything. Now she has been exiled to the filth of Southwark, with no money or means of survival.
Never again will she be beholden to a man. But when her situation becomes dire, she has little choice but to throw herself on the mercy of the dangerously handsome brothel owner, Charles Grimsby.
Charles’s prostitutes need condoms (or ‘johnny caps’) to avoid venereal disease – and so, torn between morality and poverty, Margaret begins to manufacture them, using animal gut and ribbons. Will this new enterprise be her salvation, or her ultimate ruin?