Sara Rivers-Cofield has something a little unsavory sitting on her desk: a fragile, round-tipped sheath dug out of an abandoned well that she thinks could be the oldest surviving condom in North America.
A curator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, or MAC Lab, Rivers-Cofield found the suspected condom in April 2015 when she was looking for artifacts to put in an exhibit tied to the time-travel TV series Outlander. The English goods that dominated 18th century colonial Maryland are comparable with objects featured in the scenes depicting 1740s Scotland, she says.
In search of a silk ribbon for the exhibit, Rivers-Cofield went to a cabinet at MAC Lab containing small organic items that had been found in a well decades ago at Oxon Hill Manor, a slave-owning plantation just south of Washington, D.C., overlooking the Potomac River. The well was used as a trash pit between the 1720s and 1750s. When it was excavated in the 1980s, archaeologists found an array of household garbage, including bottle corks, tobacco leaves, broken porcelain dishes, grass clippers, wooden pieces of musical instruments, and cloth and silk fragments.
She also came across an object labeled “paper?” Immediately, she thought: condom.
“In terms of its dimensions, it’s clearly the right shape and everything,” Rivers-Cofield told mental_floss. “I had seen 18th-century references to condoms, so I knew it was a possibility. My guess would be that whoever originally treated the artifact was probably reminded of a condom, too, but maybe they didn't know [condoms] could date back to the 18th century. The artifact just needed someone who had seen those period references to make the connection.”
Humans have been using condoms made from animal guts and bladders for thousands of years to prevent pregnancy and, eventually, disease. But given the private (and biodegradable) nature of early condoms, it’s probably not surprising that there aren’t many examples from the archaeological record. The world’s oldest surviving condoms date back to the 1640s: a pig intestine condom found complete with its user manual in Sweden, and another 10 condoms that were excavated from a latrine at Britain’s Dudley Castle.
“Our one example is probably more of a fluke of survival than having anything to do with whether condoms were actually here,” Rivers-Cofield said. “I’m sure they must have been here.”
Historical records suggest that by the 18th century, condoms were widespread in Europe. (It’s also around this time that condoms were first mentioned in English medical literature—in a book about gonorrhea by the unfortunately named William Cockburn.) They were sold in markets, pubs, brothels, and barbershops, much to the predictable dismay of the era’s moralists. In 1705, John Campbell, the 2nd Duke of Argyll, unsuccessfully tried to get the contraceptives banned in Britain. He even brought a linen condom to the floor of the Parliament and waved it around proclaiming that the devices were “debauching of a great number of Ladies of qualitie, and young gentlewomen.”
Others reveled in the debauchery afforded by condoms, and writers in the 18th century came up with plenty of euphemisms—night caps, French letters, machines, preservatives—to talk about the devices. Scottish writer James Boswell wrote about using “armor” in his outdoor dalliances with sex workers in London. Legendary Italian womanizer Giacomo Casanova spoke of using “English raincoats” during his trysts. He even claims he found condoms in the drawer of a French nun he was having an affair with.
Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) and a male pal entertain their lady friends by blowing up condoms like balloons in this engraving from an 1872 book, published nearly a century after Casanova died. Image Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain
Meanwhile, the American colonies, thanks to their puritanical origins, had a reputation for being rather sexually constrained. In her book The Humble Little Condom, Aine Collier notes that there aren’t many references to colonial condom use in the mid-18th century. It wasn’t until the few decades after the American Revolution that condoms started to be openly sold and discussed in metropolitan centers like New York and Philadelphia. But even then, the subject was a little taboo. A French immigrant who found success selling fine Parisian condoms at his bookshop in Philadelphia in the 1790s still had to pay ships’ captains to smuggle his wares to the U.S., according to Collier’s book.
Rivers-Cofield said there are no sources that talk about condom use in the Chesapeake region in the first half of the 18th century. The Addison family who owned Oxon Hill was a wealthy bunch of merchants and planters with access to the trade networks that presumably would have allowed them to order condoms from a major production center like London.
But Rivers-Cofield isn’t hopeful that she’ll find a paper trail that leads her to an answer about who used this condom and why. “I don’t think it’s going to show up in a probate inventory,” Rivers-Cofield said. “I don’t think it’s going to show up in a ship’s bill of lading. I don’t think we’re going to figure out all of the secrets of it because it’s a private object. I would presume that because it is a private object that this would have surreptitiously been thrown in the well. But again, I don't really know how open people there were about sexuality. Is it possible that the women were like, ‘Listen I need a break from the kids for a little bit?’ There are so many possibilities.”
She presented her discovery earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology in Fort Worth, Texas. Now she’s hoping to find a willing biology student to help her confirm with a DNA test that the suspected condom is really made from sheep’s gut.