When we think of the Victorian period, we probably don’t consider birth control. Surely this was not a part of Victorian life, right? Wrong. It became increasingly important as we moved from an agricultural society, where the children were a blessing, to a technological society, where children were more of a burden. While there were various forms of birth control the one that appeared to be used most by married woman was douching.
Douching had several benefits. First, of all it was legal through the entire period. While the Comstock laws made pretty much anything related to reproduction “obscene” and could therefore not be transported through the mail, douching was considered by most doctors as an important part of women’s health. Secondly, the more acceptable method of method of birth control, withdrawal, depended upon the male and his willingness to practice it, whereas douching put the control in the hands of the wife, who, after all, paid the most for the outcome.
In the years before the Comstock laws douching was openly marketed as a way to prevent conception. Syringes could be bought early in the century from physicians and peddlers. By mid-century they could be bought through the mail. While some women used plain water in an attempt to avoid conception, others used readily available spermicides such as vinegar and baking soda. By mid century they could buy pre-made solutions that claimed to be more effective, using substances as carbolic acid (ow!), tannin and salicylic acid. Information on how to douche and other methods of birth control were available early in the century in pamphlets and books by several different authors, most notably Fruits of Philosophy by Charles Knowlton.
Of course this method of birth control was not highly effective by current standards. We expect rates of 85-99%. Douching could not come anywhere close to these standards, but it did work better than nothing at all, and was widely practiced. Most married women would expect, and want, children from their marriage–just not one every year which is what this method of birth control prevented.
For purposes of writing, this is useful information if you’re writing about a married woman. Most of my books, however, are about single men and single women, and so in my next blog I’ll discuss the sort of birth control more likely to be used by that section of the population.