The original “Comstock Law” of 1873 bundled contraception with pornography:
“Every obscene, lewd, or lascivious, and every filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character, and every article or thing designed, adapted, or intended for preventing conception… is hereby declared to be non-mailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails.” Drop a condom in the mail and you could be fined $5,000 and/or imprisoned for five years.
And now, a necessary digression on Julius Schmid.
Arriving in New York at the age of 17, Julius Schmid was a young cripple who could walk only with the aid of a crutch. “Nobody wanted to hire a crippled boy,” he said in a 1923 interview. But he found work at a slaughter house, on the night shift, cleaning. After two years of offal and mockery from fellow workers, he landed a job in a drug store, looking after the druggist’s dogs and cleaning the store. There he saw perfume bottles in a clear wrapper made from an ox’s or sheep’s intestine, the “caecum,” a.k.a. the “blind intestine” or cul de sac, a tube-like membrane with an opening at one end. In Europe, it had long been used as a condom, and Schmid knew where he could get these membranes virtually for free.
He spent two weeks of nights learning to treat the membranes so they would resemble the European version. Once he sorted that out, he made a gross (a dozen dozen) of skins and took them to McKesson & Robbins. He interviewed the man who bought foreign skins, and came away with $5 and an order for another two gross when he had them made. Schmid quit his job at the drug store and never looked back.
In addition to the buyer at McKesson & Robbins, customers came from the neighborhood prostitutes and their clients in the Tenderloin district. They were big fans of disease- and conception-prevention, especially at a price much lower than European skins.
In September of 1890, Anthony Comstock raided Schmid’s home and arrested him for selling condoms. He confiscated 696 skins and “one form for manufacturing same.” Aine Collier, in The Humble Little Condom, writes, “It was a sad sight to see the menacing Comstock, so tall and stout, pushing the diminutive Schmidt—who had to walk with crutches—out to the horse-drawn paddy wagon.” After a court hearing, Schmid was $50 poorer but undeterred.
In September of 1903, Ossian G. Lyon and Joseph Laubach, president and treasurer of the Lyon Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, were arraigned before the United States commissioner at Cleveland for misuse of the mails, i.e., shipping rubber goods that “are contrary to good morals.” The arrests were made at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, who was attempting to cut off New York’s condom supply at the source.
In March of 1911, Julius Schmid was again arrested by Anthony Comstock, charged with “making unlawful and licentious articles,” and “a concoction which it is claimed by the officials is intended to aid race suicide” (i.e., a condom which would enable white couples to have sex without producing white babies, thus hastening the day when the white race dies under a flood of brown, black and yellow babies). The authorities ordered the destruction of seized items valued at $25,000.
But the diminutive Schmid was now a wealthy man, a diversified and respected manufacturer and gentleman farmer in Sullivan County. In 1909, Schmid had toured Europe for three months with his wife and sons in their chauffeur-driven Packard, which accompanied them on the voyage over. A motorized wheelchair had replaced his crutches, and rode with him in the car. In 1911, one can imagine Schmid’s lawyers brushing Comstock off their coat sleeves.
In October of 1911, Anthony Comstock revisited Akron, again arrested O.G. Lyon and also John Hadfield, head of the Hadfield Rubber Company, on charges of manufacturing and disposing of rubber goods for immoral purposes, i.e., shipping condoms to drugstores, and thus misusing the U.S. mails. Articles, besides molds and utensils, to the value of $25,000, were confiscated. Hadfield was the national authority on the manufacture of “dipped rubber goods” such as toy balloons, rubber gloves and other seamless items. Hadfield pled guilty and received a suspended sentence.
What was Comstock’s problem with condoms? Given that his crusade for purity was meant to save boys and girls from impure influences, it’s a valid question.
Mary Alden Hopkins interviewed Comstock for Harper’s Weekly in May of 1915 and she wondered as well. “I was somewhat confused at first that Mr. Comstock should class contraceptives with pornographic objects which debauch children’s fancies,” she wrote.
Comstock replied, “If you open the door to anything, the filth will all pour in and the degradation of youth will follow… The prevention of conception would work the greatest demoralization. God has set certain natural barriers. If you turn loose the passions and break down that fear you bring worse disaster than the war. It would debase sacred things, break down the health of women and disseminate a greater curse than the plagues and diseases of Europe.”
As for women who would be harmed by pregnancy, Comstock said, “Can they not use self-control? Or must they sink to the level of the beasts?”
Lucy Huffaker, interviewing Comstock in May of 1915 for the New York Tribune, received similar replies. Comstock asked, rhetorically, “Are we to have homes or brothels? Is the womanhood of our country to be dragged in the dust? Are men and women to practice no self-control? Is there to be no semblance of decency left in life?”
Anthony Comstock died four months later, in September of 1915. Had he lived, it is possible that the events and changes of the following years would have killed him over and over again.
During World War I, when Germany was cut off as a source of condoms, the Allies turned to Julius Schmid. But when American soldiers entered the war in 1917, they were ordered to practice “moral prophylaxis” in France. Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, wrote, “It is wicked to encourage and approve placing in the hands of the men an appliance which will lead them to think that they may indulge in practices which are not sanctioned by moral, military or civil law, with impunity, and the use of which would tend to subvert and destroy the very foundations of our moral and Christian beliefs and teachings in regard to these sexual matters.”
“Moral prophylaxis” led to almost 400,000 cases of syphilis and gonorrhea among American soldiers and sailors.
In January of 1918, Judge Frederick Crane of the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that physicians could provide contraceptives to married couples for the prevention of disease, and condoms became legal.
Julius Schmid prospered, buying eight million skins a year from large meat packers. While sales of his skins were lucrative, Schmid’s greatest innovation was a safe, vulcanized rubber condom. Schmid purchased a condom plant in Germany, dismantled it and moved it to Little Falls, New Jersey.
Latex, rubber suspended in water, was invented in 1920. Youngs Rubber Company was the first to manufacture a latex condom. In 1930, Fred Killian of Akron, Ohio, invented an automated assembly line that could produce thousands of latex condoms a day, and licensed it to other manufacturers. The number of condoms sold in the United States soared; by 1931, the top fifteen manufacturers were producing more than a million condoms each day.
In 1932, Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine crowned Julius Schmid as the King of the Condom.