A History of Contraceptives in America
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An informative, colorful history that depicts the clash of lawyers, businessmen, doctors, and clergy over the development of artificial birth control.

In this broad canvass, Tone (The Business of Benevolence, not reviewed) ranges from 1873 (when federal anti-obscenity legislation classified contraceptives as illegal) to the 1970s (when the Dalkon Shield’s problems as an intrauterine device created an epic legal battle). Her panorama is filled with the disreputable and the desperate, the penny-pinching and the puritanical. Foremost among the latter was eminent Victorian Anthony Comstock, an anti-vice crusader of such zeal that George Bernard Shaw coined the term “Comstockery” to denote prudery. Other major figures fare better, notably birth-control pioneers Margaret Sanger, John Rock, Katherine McCormick, and Gregory Pincus. But it’s the producers and the users of birth control who are the real focus of Tone’s work. Before it became a multimillion-dollar industry, the contraceptive business operated out of thousands of small shops and homes, run by people like Julius Schmidt (a paralyzed German immigrant who parlayed a job in a sausage factory into fame and fortune as a “condom king”). For years unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, they often exhibited little concern about consumers’ comfort, safety, or lives. Advances, when they came, followed compromise or setbacks: Sanger’s dream of making contraception available to the poor clashed with her need to make it respectable, for example, and condoms became widely available in the military only after nearly 400,000 soldiers contracted venereal disease in WWI. Despite clear sympathies toward feminism and contraception, the author also does not hesitate to criticize her heroes and heroines for moral blindness in developing products (Pincus, for example, experimented on mental patients in testing the pill).

Thoroughly documented and often trenchant insights on how medicine combined with business to effect a moral revolution. (32 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: June 7th, 2001
ISBN: 0-8090-3817-X
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2001


NonfictionMARGARET SANGER by Jean H. Baker
by Jean H. Baker