Columbus brought syphilis from the New World to Europe. The first record of an outbreak of the infection dates from 1494/5 in the aftermath of the French invasion of Naples (where it became known as the ‘French disease’).
By the late nineteenth century, syphilis was alluded to as an artist’s affliction as it had struck an alphabet of creative individuals, including Baudelaire, Delius, Donizetti, Gauguin, Heine, Keats, Manet, De Maupassant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Schubert, Smetana, Tolstoy, and Van Gogh.
Medical practitioners talked mutedly of an emerging health crisis, but their warnings ignored, an epidemic of sexually transmitted disease during the global Great War caused panic.
Syphilis was the scourge of the age and a taboo subject. Ibsen’s treatment of the theme in “Ghosts” (first staged in Chicago in 1882) sparked an outcry of indignation when the play was performed in London’s Soho in March 1891. Jack Grein’s production became a cause célèbre. The press considered the play repulsive – The Daily Telegraph referred to it as an “open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly” – but in the audience were George Moore, Oscar Wilde, John Gray, Charles Shannon, and Reginald Savage – writers and artists standing in the vanguard of the battle against stern and harmful Victorian morals.
As the fear of syphilis increased, more people began using condoms, which in turn led to objections against their availability. Moralists rejected all methods of contraception. In 1873, under Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, the Comstock laws banned the manufacture and sale of condoms in thirty of the United States. In 1889, Ireland made it illegal to advertise them.
Controversy lasted for some considerable time. Concerned about falling birth rates after World War I, the French government outlawed condoms. In 1920 the Church of England condemned “unnatural means of conception avoidance.” Feminists resisted all “male-controlled” contraceptives. Freud disapproved of condoms as their use diminished erotic pleasure. Such wide and varied opposition resulted in shocking numbers of sexually transmitted infections, especially among the military.
During the First World War, Britain and America were the only two nations not to issue ‘kits’ to its soldiers. Abstinence was their sole protection. In France, American personnel were ordered to practice moral rather than physical prophylaxis.
The order to repress sexual activity to an army of healthy young men engaged in combat is like trying to stop a pandemic by closing one’s borders. Venereal disease caused over 400,000 hospital admissions among troops. On average, VD patients required a month of hospital treatment which caused a huge drain on the army’s resources.
The pressures and cost of war eventually swept all objections aside. Towards the end of the war, the US Army started providing condoms to its soldiers after a ruling of Chief Judge Frederick Crane at Albany’s Court of Appeal (People of the State of New York v. Margaret Sanger) finally allowed their sale as a contraceptive.
The German army was the first to promote the use of sheaths among its conscripts, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. German manufacturers would become the main producers and exporters of condoms. Although Jewish Law opposed such means of birth control, it did not stop merchants from getting involved in the profitable trade.
Chemist Julius [Israel] Fromm was a Polish immigrant into Germany who invented the process of producing condoms of liquefied rubber. Launched shortly after the First World War, ‘Fromms’ (synonym for condom) came to dominate the market. Mass production started in 1922.
The crowning achievement of Fromm’s Condom Empire came in 1930 with the erection of a flagship factory. Designed by modernist architects Arthur Korn and Siegfried Weitzman, the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) styled building was located in Köpenick, a suburb of Berlin. It had taken just a decade for condoms to become avant-garde.
In 1938, on the grounds that rubber was badly needed for the war effort, Fromm was forced to sell his business at a fraction of its estimated value to Baroness Elisabeth von Epenstein, Hermann Göring’s godmother. He ended his productive life as a religious refugee, lost in London’s Hampstead Gardens Suburb where he died just days after the collapse of the Third Reich.
Jewish tobacconist Siegmund Jacoby had moved from Berlin to London at some time in the 1860s. His grandson Lionel Alfred Jacoby was born in 1894. In 1915, having anglicised his name to Jackson, he founded the London Rubber Company, selling condoms and barber supplies. By 1920, he had established a wholesale surgical rubber business and opened a shop at no. 3 Mincing Lane. There is some irony in the name of this location: it is a corruption of Mynchen Lane, so-called from the tenements held there by Benedictine ‘mynchens’ (nuns) of the nearby St Helen’s Bishopsgate Church. Jackson’s business was greatly helped by the 1930 Church of England decree that birth control would be permitted to couples in a marital relationship. By 1932, London Rubber had become Europe’s one and only manufacturer of latex condoms. They were branded Durex (DUrability, REliability, and EXcellence).
Ever since the Renaissance, butchers in Europe had made it their business to turn animal intestines into preventive sheaths. Contraception started in the slaughterhouse. Julius Schmidt was born into a poor Jewish family in March 1865 in Schondorf, Baden-Württemberg. Penniless, half-paralysed and walking on crutches, he moved to New York in 1882, changing his name to Schmid.
While working for a New York firm of sausage makers, he launched a lucrative side business selling intestine membranes known as ‘skins’ from his apartment in 46th Street, on the northern edge of Manhattan’s seedy Tenderloin district. In 1890 his home was raided by Anthony Comstock’s notorious vice squad and he was arrested for illegally peddling ‘beef skins’. Having spent a stint in prison, he defiantly founded Julius Schmid Inc.
Schmid ruled a booming black market. Ducking the laws against contraception, he advertised his condoms as ‘French goods and medicines’. Despite their social taboo, the market for these products was big and swelling. During the 1920s his – by then legal – firm grew quickly, manufacturing tin-packed condoms with such evocative Egyptian names as Sheik, Ramses, and Sphinx, among others. This after all was the age of Tutmania. In 1922, sensational news had been flashed around the globe that Howard Carter had discovered the intact tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. It was widely reported that the extraordinary contents of the burial vault included a linen condom.
In New York in 1938, Henry Luce’s Fortune business magazine crowned Julius Schmid the undisputed King of Condoms (imagine if immigration had been restricted to the ‘brightest and best’ only). At the outbreak of the Second World War the US government, having learned its lesson from the not too distant past, appointed him official condom supplier to the Armed Forces. Fighting Nazis in the heart of Europe, young American soldiers knew that they were protected from the threat of infection thanks to intervention of a resourceful German migrant.
Photos, from above: WWI army poster promoting abstinence; and tins of condoms produced by Julius Schmid.