Since the nineteenth-century invention of vulcanized rubber by Charles Goodyear (yup, the tire man), condoms have been one of America's most popular methods of contraception. But what's a guy to do when there's nary a sexual partner in sight and he's stuck with a lot of condoms? Quite a lot, as it turns out...
Although condoms had been technically legal since 1918, they went through various stages of effectiveness. For example, in the 1930s, a chemist discovered that a ton of them were faulty, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assumed regulation of condoms in 1937. Twenty years earlier, the Americans had voted for teaching soldiers abstinence instead of contraception, which was unsurprisingly ineffective. Ironically, the Germans had much better results using condoms.
After WWII, American rates of sexually transmitted infections went through the roof in the succeeding decades (especially among soldiers abroad). The federal government went so far as to test and detain 18,000 sexually active women at home whom they feared might have VD. n fact, the Allied troops are suspected to have brought home 1.5 million cases of syphilis and gonorrhea from WWI. To the Army, VD was a huge danger, not just because soldiers brought it home, but because it made them ill and unable to serve in the field. The Army tried issuing kits of soap, but that didn't work. Of course, women and minorities were the first to be blamed for "tempting" the "pure, honest" soldiers into sin.
An anti-STD poster, featuring a "temptress." Image via Mother Jones.
At the same time America was learning to protect white men from STDs, it engaged in the "Tuskegee Study," an incredibly unethical study based on racist premises that examined syphilis in African-American men. Alexandra Lord outlines how prejudice and public health combined to become a deadly weapon in Condom Nation: The U.S. Government's Sex Education Campaign from World War I to the Internet. Over the years, subjects were deceived as to the purpose of the study. Those suffering from syphilis were repeatedly denied methods of treatment for their disease; organizers even went so far as to prevent afflicted individuals from getting medicine as new cures were discovered. Forty years after it began, the experiment revealed that 75-100 men died from advanced syphilis, which could, of course, have been prevented if the scientists had actually given their subjects treatment.
With regard to white American soldiers, by the time World War II came around, the Americans had changed their tune. The Army made condoms standard issue for soldiers, along with Hershey's chocolate bars, gum, and cigarettes, according to Stephen Herp's fascinating A World History of Rubber. When they weren't using their condoms while having sex, soldiers found other utilizations for contraceptives. They were turned into water balloons, placed over rifle muzzles to keep out grit and water, and used to hold soldiers' watches. Others employed condoms as garters hold up their pants.
Fantastic condoms and where to find them. Image via Med-Dept.
By 1938, birth control was a $250 million-a-year industry, and Americans encouraged this at home and abroad by sending condoms overseas and giving soldiers literature about where to get condoms and how to prevent disease. The Army even used slogans like "Put it on before you put it in!" in promotional videos for soldiers, and shipped out tons of rubbers for them to use. For example, 100,000 condom packets were shipped out of New York on September 29, 1942, with an additional 55,000 sent out a few days later, all for soldiers stationed overseas.
Here, condoms were primarily issued to prevent the spread of venereal disease amongst soldiers, rather than pregnancies, focusing more on the health of the American men in question than that of their sexual partners. But the Americans also wanted their "boys" to remain "pure," both in image and in actuality. And The Powers That Be didn't give African-American soldiers amounts of contraceptives and same sexual education as they did their white counterparts; in addition, the difference in quality of healthcare was certainly not made up at home or abroad.
Feature image via BuzzFeed/Business Insider.