19th Century Contraception

This week I’m focusing on historical issues for authors. Today, I’m so pleased to have Catherine Richmond as she discusses 19th century contraception. I found this information really fascinating. What were the options for women during that era?

Welcome, Catherine.

In 1874 Dakota Territory, Susannah Mason’s miscarriage terrified her husband. Jesse took her to a doctor who diagnosed Susannah as too frail for childbearing, much less homesteading. With a century to go before the availability of The Pill, what contraceptive methods did the doctor prescribe?

First, he cautioned that his instructions were confidential. In fact, since the Comstock law passed the year before, mailing information about birth control had become illegal.

 So what did he recommend?

o   Abstinence. Quite a challenge in a soddy with only one bed!

o   Withdrawal. One of the least effective methods of preventing pregnancy.

o   Rhythm. Unfortunately, scientific knowledge at the time meant physicians gave incorrect information about fertility. The doctor’s recommendation actually increased the chance of pregancy.

o   Sponge. A sea sponge or a wad of cotton or wool, about the size of a green walnut or small apple, formed a barrier.

o   Douche. The recommended agent was widely-available vinegar.

o   French letter. For centuries, condoms had been used to protect against sexually transmitted diseases. Gradually their use expanded to contraception. In 1874 condoms were made of sheep intestines or rubber.


With medical advice being sparse and of questionable quality, women went to each other for guidance. Letters from the 19th century – if the descendants haven’t edited them out of the horror of discovering great-grandma knew about sex! – show wives coaching each other on use of the calendar. Mothers knew breastfeeding helped increase the time between pregancies. Women shared recipes, including one for a barrier made of boric acid and cocoa butter.

Researching 19th century contraception for Spring for Susannahwas fascinating.  And made me thankful that advances in science have made birth control safer and more reliable!


Catherine Richmond is the author of Spring for Susannah and Though Rushing Water. She supports her writing habit by working as an occupational therapist.

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