A brief history of the condom

Slate is running a whimsical little history of the Trojan condom this week and because Wesleyan’s nothing if not a summer camp for horny nerds, here you go:

Trojan condoms were the brainchild of a canny Presbyterian from upstate New York named Merle Leland Youngs. When Youngs moved to New York City in the second decade of the 20th century, the condom trade was decidedly seedy, with fly-by-night manufacturers peddling dodgy wares. The Comstock Law of 1873 forbade the sale of birth control, so condoms were instead sold as protection against disease. Still, many pharmacists were loath to stock a product associated with sexual vice, and consumers often had to buy their condoms in the backrooms of bars.

Youngs realized that condoms, for all their supposed shadiness, were a potentially lucrative business for a morally upstanding entrepreneur like himself. During World War I, America’s condom-makers flourished by selling their wares to European armies; the puritanical American Expeditionary Force, on the other hand, refused to furnish its soldiers with condoms and was in turn plagued by an astronomical number of venereal infections. Public-health officials were concerned that returning soldiers would spread syphilis far and wide, and Youngs correctly sensed that condoms would become more socially acceptable in the face of a potential epidemic. Indeed, the very year that World War I ended, a New York judge ruled in favor of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, allowing her to distribute information on contraceptives without fear of arrest.

Youngs knew, however, that condoms needed a new image in order to thrive. He countered the product’s dicey reputation by stressing manufacturing standards and building a state-of-the-art factory in Trenton, N.J., that produced condoms of uniform quality. He also favored austere packaging emblazoned with nothing but a Trojan helmet, a symbol meant to connote protection and virility.