Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America Summary

Andrea Tone


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Research for Andrea Tone’s Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America was funded by the Georgia Tech Foundation, Simon Fraser University, the Rockefeller Archive Center, the Huntington Library, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which granted Tone a Fellowship for University Teachers in 1998. Tone’s exhaustive research includes interviews with numerous physicians, reviews of postal records, Federal Trade Commission transcripts, military records, and reports about early birth control firms. Her list of resources consulted for the book includes the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (and branches at College Park, Maryland, Atlanta, and Manhattan); the Library of Congress; the American Medical Association in Chicago; the Rockefeller Archive Center in Tarrytown, New York; the National Archives for Black Women’s History; the Smithsonian; and many university, biomedical, and pharmaceutical libraries throughout the country.

The end result of this meticulous scholarship is a comprehensive, beautifully written, and thoroughly entertaining history of contraception in the United States. Tone presents this history, covering roughly a century of dramatically changing times (1873 to the 1970’s), within the framework of the evolution of the modern birth control industry and concurrent legal, medical, and scientific developments. Details of the social context of each era and discussions of events that brought about successive changes in attitudes and practices are presented in depth. More important, Tone describes, in a convincing and intimate way, the lives and attitudes, or “desires,” of the people who advocated the use of contraception or wanted to avoid pregnancy; the people who opposed the use of contraception; and the people who supplied the “devices” or supplies needed for contraception, or made it possible for new products to be developed. It is the inclusion of these very personal, and often hitherto unknown stories, along with numerous contraceptive anecdotes—all embedded in a scholarly, solid, historical narrative—that makes this book so original and engaging. In contrast to the usual birth control history, focusing on physicians, lawmakers, and political activists, “Devices and Desires is the story of what it was like to make, buy, and use contraceptives during a century when the contraceptive industry was transformed from an illicit trade operating out of basement workshops and pornography outlets to one of the most successful legitimate businesses in American history.”

Tone begins the narrative with Anthony Comstock, a zealous Congregationalist and an aggressive moral reformer, who was the chief proponent of an antiobscenity bill approved by Congress in 1873 that outlawed dissemination through the U.S. postal system or across state lines of any “article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever for the prevention of conception.” The bill was in keeping with a long tradition of federal regulation of obscenity, but to eliminate loopholes, it included a long list of “obscenities ” and, for the first time, thanks to Comstock, defined contraceptives as “obscene” materials. The Comstock Act, as it came to be known, effectively outlawed the manufacture of contraceptives.

Working first with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and later as an agent for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), Comstock hunted down and prosecuted vice entrepreneurs with a religious zeal and rigidity that inspired widespread loathing. There was a steady stream of newspaper cartoons, editorials, and poems ridiculing him, and even Ireland’s George Bernard Shaw predicted that “Comstockery” would become “the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States.”

Tone sketches an evenhanded account of Comstock’s character, explaining the circumstances behind his motives. It was the public nature of the sex trade, public displays of sexuality and nudity, and the public visibility of contraceptives and abortion that enraged him. Newspapers were full of shameless advertisements. There was flagrant trafficking in sex in the 1850’s and 1860’s, not only in public places but also through a network of entrepreneurs using the postal service. A boom in mail-order pornography was sweeping America, and the same printers peddled pornography and contraceptive devices. Comstock believed in natural fertility control; the availability of contraceptives encouraged lust. Most contemporary writers on the subject, Tone suggests, shared this view.

Contrary to expectations, the cottage-industry production...

(The entire section is 1895 words.)