Prior to the development of the birth control pill, there were many different methods that women used to prevent conception. Many of them were often used in combination with other methods to decrease the likelihood of becoming pregnant. For example, though partners may use physical barriers such as condoms or diaphragms, it was also suggested that the vaginal area should be cleansed with Lysol to kill the sperm that may have entered the womb despite the barriers in place. In her pamphlet published in 1916, Margaret Sanger suggests that “It seems inartistic and sordid to insert a pessary or a suppository in anticipation of the sexual act. But it is far more sordid to find yourself several years later burdened down with half a dozen unwanted children, helpless, starved, shoddily clothed, dragging at your skirt, yourself a dragged out shadow of the woman you once were.” [1] And with this sentiment, women utilized any and all methods to prevent unwanted or unplanned births.

Natural Methods

Very early forms of oral contraceptives were in the form of herbal concoctions that were said to suppress sexual desires and thereby prevent birth. Thus, it served not to alter or influence a woman’s physiological processes but rather help one in maintaining prevention through abstinence. [2] In addition to this, one may also keep track of her menstrual cycle to determine when would be the most appropriate times to have sex, based on what the couple desired. This method was known as rhythm and was one of the natural methods advocated by the church.

Vaginal Douche

Margaret Sanger explains this method of preventing conception in her pamphlet, Family Limitations. She explains that, “the most important part which every woman should learn in the methods of preventing conception, is to cleanse herself thoroughly by means of the vaginal douche.” [3] It’s the notion that the area can be cleansed of the semen that would lead to pregnancy. Some of the liquids that were suggested for cleaning the area included mixtures of Lysol and water, bichloride, potassium permanganate, chinosol, or a simple solution of salt or vinegar. [4]



This form of contraception would require the cooperation by the male partner. It was recommended by Margaret Sanger that since the douche did not always work, condoms may be used in addition. They would add to the effectiveness of other birth control methods because the condom worked to contain the sperm before it entered the female body. [5]

Pessaries and Diaphragms

Both the Pessary and Diaphragms operate under the same assumptions, as female forms of physical barrier protection against pregnancy. A Pessary or sponge was something that could be inserted into the woman to prevent sperm and semen from entering the womb. The sponge was soaked in an acidic solution that would act to kill the sperm before it reached the womb. The pessary was the female version of the physical barrier that could be inserted and worn during acts of intimacy.[6] Pessaries were popularly prescribed to women throughout the 1940’s. Diaphragms and Pessaries could be sized to fit the woman and were often times used in combination with Spermicides.

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