Contraceptive Consumers: Gender and the Political Economy of Birth Control in the 1930s

By Tone, Andrea | Journal of Social History, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Contraceptive Consumers: Gender and the Political Economy of Birth Control in the 1930s


Tone, Andrea, Journal of Social History


In 1933, readers of McCall's probably noticed the following advertisement for Lysol feminine hygiene in the magazine's July issue:

The most frequent eternal triangle:

A HUSBAND ... A WIFE ... and her FEARS

Fewer marriages would flounder around in a maze of misunderstanding and unhappiness if more wives knew and practiced regular marriage hygiene. Without it, some minor physical irregularity plants in a woman's mind the fear of a major crisis. Let so devastating a fear recur again and again, and the most gracious wife turns into a nerve-ridden, irritable travesty of herself.(1)

Hope for the vexed woman was at hand, however. In fact, it was as close as the neighborhood store. Women who invested their faith and dollars in Lysol, the ad promised, would find in its use the perfect panacea for their marital woes. Feminine hygiene would contribute to "a woman's sense of fastidiousness" while freeing her from habitual fears of pregnancy. Used regularly, Lysol would ensure "health and harmony ... throughout her married life."(2)

The McCall's ad, one of hundreds of birth control ads published in women's magazines in the 1930s, reflects the rapid growth of the contraceptive industry in the United States during the Depression. Birth control has always been a matter of practical interest to women and men. By the early 1930s, despite long-standing legal restrictions and an overall decline in consumer purchasing power, it had also become a profitable industry. Capitalizing on Americans' desire to limit family size in an era of economic hardship, pharmaceutical firms, rubber manufacturers, mail-order houses, and fly-by-night peddlers launched a successful campaign to persuade women and men to eschew natural methods for commercial devices whose efficacy could be "scientifically proven." In 1938, with the industry's annual sales exceeding $250 million, Fortune pronounced birth control one of the most prosperous new businesses of the decade.(3)

Since the Depression, the contraceptive industry's wealth and standing have steadily increased. Yet despite its meteoric rise, the contraceptive industry remains an unexplored chapter of American history. Studying the birth control movement chiefly as a medical or political phenomenon, historians have discounted the social significance of its commercialization. This historiographical lacuna can be explained, in part, by the belief that technological stagnation forestalled the emergence of a lucrative contraceptive industry prior to the mass marketing of oral contraceptives in 1960. In fact, the technological innovations of the 1960s and 1970s merely fortified the industry's already well-established position. Decades before the Pill became a household word, the political economy of birth control in the United States had already been shaped.(4)

It was during the Depression that the structure of the modern contraceptive market emerged. Depression-era manufacturers were the first to create a mass market for contraceptives in the United States. Through successful advertising they heightened demand for commercial birth control while building a permanent consumer base that facilitated the industry's subsequent expansion. Significantly, this consumer constituency was almost exclusively female. Condoms, the most popular commercial contraceptive before the Depression, generated record sales in the 1930s. But it was profits from female contraceptives - sales of which outnumbered those of condoms five to one by the late 1930s - that fuelled the industry's prodigious growth.(5) Then, as now, women were the nation's leading contraceptive consumers.

An important feature distinguished the birth-control market of the 1930s from that of today, however: its illegality. Federal and state laws dating from the 1870s proscribed the inter-state distribution and sale of contraceptives. Although by the 1920s the scope of these restrictions had been modified by court interpretations permitting physicians to supply contraceptive information and devices in several states, the American Medical Association's ban on medically dispensed contraceptive advice remained intact.

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