Bygone Days

Contraception: Civil War Style

By Kim Murphy

No other period in American history has ever experienced such a dramatic decrease in the birth rate as the time of the Civil War. In 1800, the average woman gave birth to 7.04 children. By 1900, the figure was 3.56 children with the sharpest drop taking place around 1850.(1) The steady decline occurred over the entire country. First, the urban women, especially in New England, were having fewer children, then the slope spread to the rural and frontier areas as women sought more control over their private lives.

A few historians continue to claim that limitation of family size never reached the antebellum South. Catherine Clinton states the Southern planter class remained stagnant when feminist issues expanded to other areas of the country. However, the statistics used to prove her point exhibit little variation between the North and South and were from a period before the wide availability of contraceptive devices, lending little credence to such a stance.(2) In contrast, Jan Lewis and Kenneth A. Lockridge noted in a preliminary study of Virginia gentry women that birth rates did indeed decline after 1830, especially for women over the age of 35.(3)

In the decades before the Civil War, there was no organized movement to advocate or control contraception. Freethinking printers and publishers began spreading the word about reproductive choices, and Charles Knowlton became the first American legally tried for the publication of contraceptive material. Fruits of Philosophy was copyrighted in 1831 and printed anonymously in 1832. The advanced scientific writing on women's anatomy and reproduction was an innovative work. His response to moralists was that "Mankind will not abstain."(4) In December 1832, Knowlton was arrested for obscenity.

No longer an anonymous work, the second edition was published in 1833. Knowlton added more science and corrected popular errors. Fruits of Philosophy went through many editions and by the 1850s was found in nearly every section of the country. Not only had Knowlton introduced contraceptive information to the public, but new knowledge about the human body and sexual desire as well. Although some of his scientific details were incorrect by today's knowledge, Knowlton was a visionary, predicting overpopulation problems and suggesting that women take control of their reproductive health. He ends his work with these words:

A temperate gratification promotes the secretions, and the appetite for food; calms the restless passions; induces pleasant sleep; awakens social feeling, and adds a zest to life which makes one conscious that life is worth preserving.(5)

Until Margaret Sanger coined the words "birth control" in 1914, there was no standard term for family planning. In the nineteenth century, metaphors such as "limitation of offspring," "preventatives," and "regulators" were used. Devices and methods had an equal number of euphemisms, including "womb veils," "wife's protector," and "female preventatives."(6)

Coitus interruptus or "withdrawal" was commonly used in Victorian America. In 1831,Robert Dale Owen published Moral Physiology. He publicized the technique with his pamphlet, writing candidly and without many of the euphemisms characteristic of the era. Douching was another common method, both as a contraceptive and as an abortion technique. Charles Knowlton claimed to have invented the use of spermicides with douching.(7) By midcentury, "prevention powders" and expensive bottles of "toilet vinegars" were sold commercially.

In the 1840s, along with the growing body of scientific knowledge, the rhythm method was introduced. Though the technique is not the same one practiced in the twenty-first century, a French physician had discovered the relationship between the release of ova and menstruation. Depending on the adviser, the recommendations of the "safe period" were often in conflict. Unfortunately for many women, the most common advised time of coitus in the 1850s through the 1870s was right at the time when they were most likely to conceive.(8)

In 1839, Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization of rubber which gave rise to the manufacture of condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes, diaphragms, and cervical caps.(9) Before this time, condoms, often known as "French safes" or "male safes," were made from animal membranes and had been associated with the stigma of being a preventative for syphilis in the brothels. Due to improved technology and lower costs, rubber condoms came into widespread use during the 1850s.

Womb veils were cervical caps or diaphragms. By the 1860s, these contraceptive pessaries were advertised under a variety of names, including "French shields" and "womb guards." Secrecy and non-interference with sexual pleasure were promoted with their use. Why secrecy? Not all men were reliable with coitus interruptus or in wearing a condom. As well as that, some men were unsympathetic to a woman having reproductive control.

Contraceptive sponges were mentioned in the advice literature as early as the late 1700s. Opinions varied as to a sponge's reliability, but they became commercially available by the mid-nineteenth century. Druggists sold wide varieties or a woman could buy a sponge of the correct size and attach a silk thread to make her own.(10)

No other birth control topic brings such extreme emotion as abortion. As in modern times, abortion was a controversial subject during the nineteenth century. While the exact abortion rate is impossible to calculate, historians agree that the number escalated from one abortion in every twenty-five or thirty live births to one for every five or six births in the 1850s and 1860s.(11) The law as to when a fetus became a full-fledged person has been argued over for centuries. Antebellum Americans adopted the medieval common law from Thomas Aquinas that the soul entered the fetus at the time of quickening or with the first movements.

Originally, lawmakers believed that abortion was mainly utilized by unmarried women to avoid disgrace. But by the late 1830s and early 1840s, many in the middle class sanctioned abortion and abortifacients became a commercial business. "Regulators" or "preventative powders" came in the form of pills or fluid extracts for a woman to induce an abortion in the privacy of her home. Along with drugs, abortion instruments were readily available through mail order and drug stores. "Female physicians" cropped up in urban areas with Madame Restell among the most famous, running a mail-order business and abortion service from the 1830s through the 1870s.(12)

Unique research conducted by Clelia Duel Mosher in the late-nineteenth century has remarkably survived to modern times. Dr. Mosher, a researcher at Stanford University, surveyed forty-seven married women about health issues, and among the topics examined were sexual practices and birth control.(13) By no means is the study an exhaustive, scientific one. All of the women were from the North and well-educated, clearly biasing the sample selection, but the study lends an extraordinary rare glimpse inside Victorian life.

For the purpose of keeping the study directly related to the Civil War, I have narrowed the field of forty-seven women to the seventeen who were born before the war. Of these, five women would have been mature and one a teenager by the outbreak in 1861. All but one woman admitted to resorting to the use of some sort of birth control with the most popular methods being condoms, withdrawal, the rhythm method, and douching. Five women, married from nine months to fifteen years, had no children with only one admitting to taking no precautions. The remaining women had from one to eight children. Four of these stated they had children by choice, five by accident, two a combination, and one woman with eight children left it all to chance.

During the Civil War, women were forced into many nontraditional roles. Yet little notice, except for technological advances, has been given to reproductive control during the era. Contraceptive knowledge became public before the war, and with a growing awareness of science and choice, demand came about for better methods that paved the way to modern birth control.


  1. Lowery, Thomas P., MD,The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War.(Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994), 98.
  2. Clinton, Catherine, The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South. (New York:Pantheon Books, 1982), 234.
  3. Lewis, Jan and Kenneth A. Lockridge, "'Sally has been Sick': Pregnancy and Family Limitation Among Virginia Gentry Women, 1780-1830,"Journal of Social History, (22), Fall 1988, 5-19.
  4. Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz, Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 75.
  5. Knowlton, Charles, Fruits of Philosophy: An Essay on the Population Question, 3rd new ed., with notes, (1878 reprint ed., New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1972), 56.
  6. Brodie, Janet Farrell,Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America. (Ithaca:Cornell University Press, 1994), 5.
  7. Brodie, 68-69.
  8. Brodie, 85.
  9. Tone, Andrea, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America. (New York:Hill and Wang, 2001), 14.
  10. Brodie 213-14.
  11. Grossberg, Michael, Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 170.
  12. Tone, Andrea, ed., Controlling Reproduction: An American History. (Wilmington,Delaware: SR Books, 1997), 101.
  13. Mosher, Clelia Duel, The Mosher Survey, (1980 reprint ed., North Stratford, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, 2000).

Contraception: Civil War Style © 2004 by Kim Murphy

"Contraception: Civil War Style" was first published as "Conception: Civil War Style" in the April-May 2004 issue of The Citizens' Companion.

Kim Murphy graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in anthropology, a social science where one of the first lessons taught about a culture is that ideology and actual behavior are two very different things. She is currently a freelance writer, and her first Civil War novel, Promise & Honor, was a ForeWord Magazine 2003 Book of the Year finalist. The sequel, Honor & Glory was released from Coachlight Press in January 2004, and garnered a ForeWord Bronze award. The third book, Glory and Promise, concludes the trilogy and was a Library of Virginia Award Nominee. Whispers from the Grave and Whispers through Time are her award-winning novels that combine a Civil War backdrop with a paranormal element, and The Dreaming: Walks Through Mist is her latest work, centered around a woman in modern times with memories from 17th century Virginia. Kim makes no apologies for her female characters enjoying sexual intimacies.

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