When Condoms Were Criminal

Hunter Oatman-Stanford charts the rise and fall (and rise again) of contraception in the US:

By 1870, condoms were available through almost any outlet you can imagine–drug suppliers, doctors, pharmacies, dry-goods retailers and mail-order houses. It may seem suprising today, but sexual products were openly sold and distributed during much of the 19th century. Then, suddenly, in 1873 Congress passed the Comstock Act, which paralyzed the growing industry; Comstock made it illegal to send any "article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever for the prevention of conception" through the mail.

Jim Edmonson, chief curator at the Dittrick Medical History Center, explains that the law was passed primarily because of a vicious campaign by its namesake, Anthony Comstock. "He was a do-gooder, a reformer, and a religious-minded person," says Edmonson. … Ostensibly designed to prevent the sale of obscene literature and pornography, the Comstock Act effectively made any form of contraception illegal in the United States, punishable as a misdemeanor with a six-month minimum prison sentence. "So we had a national law criminalizing contraception," says Edmonson. "It’s hard to believe, but it’s true."