The CDC recently dropped a public reminder that people shouldn’t wash and reuse condoms, prompting an international outcry of, “What? Ew!” We had no idea this was something that needed saying, but here goes: Don’t reuse condoms. Mostly because it damages the latex and decreases their efficacy, and partly because it’s gross as hell.
That being said, there’s an exception to every rule. If you’re using conventional latex condoms, for the love of god please obey the CDC. But if you’re an 18th-century time-traveler, you actually should wash your condoms, because they’re made from animal guts and that’s how they work.
*slowly takes down clothesline with condoms clipped down the line* https://t.co/vvdKofle31
— Shoshana Weissmann, Sloth Committee Chair 🦥 (@senatorshoshana) July 25, 2018
The mere idea of condom-washing inspires morbid fascination, but for history buffs, it has secondary connotations. While latex condoms didn’t show up until the 1930s, people have been using less efficient methods for centuries. Those vintage condoms were made from materials like leather (okay), animal gut (sure), and chemically treated linen (oh god), and they were generally reusable. In the 18th century, the most popular version involved a tube of pig or sheep gut that you tied on with a little ribbon and rinsed out after use. Expensive and reputedly better at preventing STDs than pregnancy, they mostly worked in the favor of wealthy, promiscuous men rather than the sex workers they frequented. Go figure.
There are some entertainingly salacious historical examples of those condoms in use, including Casanova (who inflated his sheepgut condoms to check for holes) and the 18th-century diarist James Boswell. And if you think the phrase “18th-century diarist” sounds like a snooze, well, prepare to have your eyes opened.
Boswell’s diaries are still popular today, famously readable due to their casual tone and frequent horniness. Here’s one of his many accounts of using “armour” during sex, from his London Journal in 1763:
“At the bottom of the Haymarket I picked up a strong, jolly young damsel, and taking her under the arm I conducted her to Westminster Bridge, and then in armour complete did I engage her upon this noble edifice. The whim of doing it there with the Thames rolling below us amused me much.”
Gotta love the contrast between lofty language like “noble edifice,” and the fact that he’s talking about having sex against a public bridge outside the Houses of Parliament.
Boswell describes his sex life on numerous occasions, both with and without “armour”—which explains why he got so many STDs. He mentions buying his reusable animal-gut condoms from a brothel madam, and on one memorable occasion, he writes about dipping a condom in the canal to moisten it before use. Although that’s arguably the opposite of washing it, when you consider the cleanliness of your average 18th century London canal.
If you’re someone who sees modern condoms as a frustrating annoyance, hopefully this puts things in perspective. Along with the intrinsic gross-out factor of using animal innards, Boswell’s armour clearly wasn’t doing a great job of protecting anyone from anything. The latex version is infinitely safer, as long as you don’t do something idiotic like wash them out to reuse later.