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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

1800's Birth Control

Updated: May 8, 2023

Women Found Ways to Control Their Pregnancies & Destiny


Life was hard on the frontier, especially for women. According to the 1850 U.S. census, the first ever conducted nationwide, the average woman had six children, down from 7-8 in 1800. Pregnancy and childbirth were major killers of women and in the western frontier, the mortality rate was three times higher than in New England and more than 50 times what it is today. (Imagine giving birth in a Conestoga wagon on the rutted and rocky Oregon Trail!)


That wasn't the only problem. After the Civil War, the 2.75 million soldiers coming home from the war suffered from epidemic rates of alcoholism and opiate addiction. (See previous post, "Cocaine Candy in the Old West"). Unemployment, PTSD (called "soldier's heart" in the 1860s), and domestic violence were at epidemic rates as well.


Women were desperate to control the number of children they had and there was a voracious market for birth control methods. This, despite the fact that in the 1840s, state legislatures began passing laws outlawing the sale and use of contraceptives until the 1873 Comstock Law banned them federally. By 1880, abortion, too, was criminalized in all states.


By 1850, contraceptive products were massively marketed and advertised in ladies magazines as "female pills," "Mother's friend," "prevention powders," and "regulator tablets." Tablets or tinctures of pennyroyal, rue, foxglove, angelica root, or partridge berry, marketed as "squaw vine," worked in various ways as abortifacients or preventives.


Condoms and crude diaphragms and precursors to the IUD were also invented and on the market by the 1850s. Charles Goodyear's 1839 rubber "vulcanization" process revolutionized condom manufacturing. Birth control douches became popular, as well. All sort of concoctions, some deadly, were used, including bleach, sulfate of zinc, and, starting in the 1880s, Coca Cola and Lysol!


The many forms of birth control of the 1800s varied wildly in their ineffectiveness and many were deadly or left women damaged for life. Despite the dangers, the fertility rate of the nation's female population continued to plummet consistently for the entire 19th century.


Native American women, too, used birth control methods. They were not only empowered by cultural knowledge passed down through generations, but by a natural pharmacopeia of plants and herbs available to them in nature. The Hopi and Tewa used the Indian paintbrush plant to prevent pregnancy and the Navajo, stoneseed. Tea made from false hellebore root was used by both women and men to prevent children in the Paiute, Washo, and Shoshone tribes. The Shoshone also used stoneseed and one-seed juniper berries. Tea from bitter cherry wood was used by the Skokomish, Skagit, Lummi, and Quinalt. Blue cohash was perhaps the most commonly used among many tribes as an abortifacient, as well as to induce labor.

PHOTOS: (Top left) A Victorian-era satirical postcard. About 1890. (Top right) An 1836 pewter douching syringe. Douching became a popular birth control method beginning in the 1830s, although many products were dangerous or deadly. (Second row, left) An 1800s condom. Charles Goodyear's "vulcanized" rubber revolutionized condom manufacturing in the mid-1800s. From Getty Images. (Second row, right) An early, 1880 precursor to the IUD (Intrauterine device). This implement, however, could cause infection, sterility and death. (Bottom two rows) "Female pills," "Mother's friend," "prevention powders," and "regulator tablets" were just a few cryptic names

given to birth control products of the 1800s.

   

"1800s Birth Control" was originally posted May 29, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com

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© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER       

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular NotesfromtheFrontier.com blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook

 

Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  

 

Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on DeborahHufford.com, Facebook, and Instagram.

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