NL 2007/05

Contraception 100 Years Ago

Dear friends of the Museum of Contraception and Abortion,

till the end of 19th century contraception was not perceived as being within the scope of a physicians’ duty, so gynaecologists and obstetricians heavily opposed it:
„Of course nobody can deny that in some cases contraception might be necessary for medical reasons ... less urgent when pregnancy and childbirth might place the mother at risk but a healthy child might result ... The same is true when the offspring might be born ill and unlikely to survive, but pregnancy and childbirth would not heavily damage the mother.“ (Quoted from: Encyclopedia of obstetrics and gynaecology, 1900)

Apart from the medical „class conceit“ against contraception they were indeed legally prohibited to give advice and recommendations concerning means of contraception: „If somebody displays items for immoral use in places accessible to the public or if he announces or promotes them to the public he can be penalized with prison up to one year and a fine up to 1000 Marks“ (§ 184,3 German Penal Code, effective from 1900 till the 1970s.)

One of the few 19th century supporters of contraception was German gynaecologist Wilhelm Peter Mensinga (1836-1910). He said: „When the mother’s wellbeing could be at risk due to future pregnancies, it is the philantropist’s duty to prevent conception and ensure ‚facultative sterility’.“ Despite his collegues’s mockeries and taunts, he developed in 1881 the more or less reliable contraceptive ‚occlusive pessary’, which was the precursor to the diaphragm.

In 1896 at a medical conference, the contraceptive means vaginal powder blower (‚Scheidenpulverbläser’) was seen for the first time ever. In 1898, contraceptive means were discussed publicly for the first time ever.

It was not until 1900 that contraception constituted an independent topic in gynaecological and obstetrical journals or scientific projects. Contraception did not warrant its own chapter in medical textbooks before WW I.

In 1909 gynaecologist Walter Pust postulated useful contraceptives: „They should be safe, cheap and harmless, as little unaesthetically as possible and preferably to be applied by physicians only.

With proletarianization, overcrowding and widespread misery due to rapid growth of cities, Hugo Sellheim was the first in 1911 to express a woman’s right to decide on the best timing for a pregnancy.

From 1926 onwards sexology bloomed and clinics for sexual health were installed, originally to check the health of future spouses, later on to give advice regarding conception.

Printed sexual education started in approximately 1880; in 1929 Theodoor Hendrik van der Velde published his best selling book „The Perfect Marriage“. Although the Roman-catholic church placed the book on its list of forbidden books (Index librorum prohibitorum), 42 editions were printed and sold in the next 5 years in Germany.

To avoid sale prohibition of contraceptives, camouflage names and hiding advertisements were used, such as „women protection“, „rinsing apparatus for ladies“‚ „means for health protection“ or „appliance to spread natural tubes of the body, mostly to install pharmaceuticals ...“
When the Nazis came into power contraception was forbidden.

At the beginning of 20th century a variety of contraception methods were used, though none of them were reliable and a few were even harmful: Coitus interruptus, condoms made from rubber, fish bladder, sheep caecum, condoms covering the glans, occlusive pessaries, cervical caps, vaginal suppositories made from cocoa butter, chinine and powdered acids, and sponges soaked with lysole or vinnegar and assembled with silk threads. Additionally, there were vaginal douching with water, sulphure copper, dilutions of carbol, vinnegar, alaun, using so called mother syringes or ladies’ shower, bidets, irrigators etc. Not to forget installing chemicals by means of vaginal powder blowers. We lack reliable informations on their success since Pearl-Index was not known before 1932.

We thank Antje Kristina Belau MD (University of Greifswald) for her review of contraception 100 years ago at the occasion of our opening ceremony in March.


Address: 37 Mariahilfer Guertel / 1st floor, A-1150 Vienna, Austria
phone +43 699 178 178 04, fax: +43 1 892 25 81
Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 2PM to 6PM
Tickets: 8 Euros. Discounts: 4 Euros (up to age 22 with ID)

Public Access: Underground Lines 3 and 6/Westbahnhof Station, Exit Äussere Mariahilfer Strasse
Tram Lines 5, 6, 9, 18, 52, 58: Westbahnhof Station. No parking site. Bikes can be placed in the inner yard.
Guided tours: Tours for classes (90 minutes) or groups must be booked in advance: +43 699 178 178 06 or via

Listen to the audio-tour from inside or outside the museum (local rate): for contraception dial +43 1 236 300 00 and add no. of respective panel. For abortion dial +43 1 236 300 01 and add no. of respective panel.
Visit the museum online at


While many interesting objects have already been donated to the Museum, we are still happy to receive items such as films, posters, leaflets, books, documents, statistics, devices and instruments for contraception, for pregnancy-testing and for abortion -. from past and present times from here and around the world.

Museum of Contraception and Abortion
phone: +43 699 178 178 04 (Susanne Krejsa PhD)
+43 699 159 731 90 (Christian Fiala MD PhD)

You can also support us by sponsoring the purchase of objects, which otherwise we would not be able to finance.