Birth Control in Nineteenth-Century England

By Angus McLaren | Go to book overview

with the Thames rolling below us amused me very much. 1

From this anecdote one gathers that the bridges of the metropolis were neither much frequented nor well lit in the eighteenth century; the most curious reference made by Boswell, however, is to his 'armour'. From this and other entries in his diary we learn that prophylactic devices were in use over two hundred years ago. This information is of importance because instruments which were initially used to protect men from disease were eventually to be employed to protect women from pregnancy.

What the eighteenth-century man feared the most, what he was
most ignorant about and what quacks accordingly claimed they could,
at a price, cure, was the pox. Even reputable physicians could not deal
in any meaningful way with the ravages of venereal disease until the
twentieth century, but the reader of the eighteenth-century press finds
countless claims made for the efficacy of some new balm. Boswell, for
example, was a purchaser of Keyser's Pills which were puffed in the
Public Advertiser, 4 February 1768, as a mild cure for '...a certain
disorder, without the least trouble or confinement' which had been
found efficacious by 'ambassadors, ministers of state, and other
noblemen of the first rank.' 2 The same publication also carried
announcements for 'The Lisbon Diet Drink' for those '...who had
been injured by a certain disorder, and brought almost to a total
weakness... This solution is more pleasant to the taste, will keep
longer, and may be sent to any part of the kingdom put up in pint
bottles, with printed directions, at half a guinea each. To be had at
Mr Woodcock's, perfumer, in Orange Street, Red Lion Square, and
nowhere else.' 3 This nostrum was claimed by one John Leake to be
his monopoly and in a pamphlet he warned customers against
purchasing the wares of Walter Leake, a scoundrel seeking to pass off
useless medicines on the strength of the same surname. 4

William Hickey, a contemporary of Boswell, sought relief for his
complaints in 'Velnos' Vegetable Syrup'. 5 This was, wrote its English
distributor Isaac Swainson, a French concoction which in addition to
the pox would cure leprosy, gout, scrophula, dropsy, small pox,
consumption, tape worms, cancer, scurvy, and diaorrhea. Such a
marvellous drug should have driven out all competitors but Swainson
was soon complaining that charlatans were selling ineffectual
imitations. 6 He specifically cited John Hodson who in 1790 published
Nature's Assistant to the Restoration of Health, to Which is Added a
Short Treatise on the Venereal Disease...and the Destructive Habit of

-20-

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