The Wrap Up: A brief history of condoms

Condoms have changed substantially over the years, so what we consider the first documented condom looks very different from the slender foil-wrapped sheaths we use today. In this seminal post on the history of condoms, let’s look at how far the humble cock sock has come.

3000 BCE – A king and a goats bladder

In 3000 BCE, the mythological King Minos of Crete was perhaps the first documented person to use a goat’s bladder (wish we could bleat this out) as a protective sheath during sex with his wife Pasiphae. Which seems all the more important given that he was cursed with “serpents and scorpions” living in his semen. Yikes.

1000 BCE – Ancient Egyptian linen

In 1000 BCE, ancient Egyptians used linen sheaths to protect their penises from disease. It’s hard to grasp how effective or comfortable this would have been; thankfully, we use linen for sheets and shirts but not condoms these days.

1400s – The glans from Asia

It can only get better from goats’ bladders, right? In 15th century China and Japan, ‘glans condoms’ (condoms that cover only the head of the penis) were used for birth control. Japanese users had the choice between tortoise shell and animal horn glans condoms. Meanwhile, Chinese condom owners had to pick between oiled silk paper and lamb intestines.

1500s – With a ribbon on top

In the 16th century, Italian anatomist Gabrielle Fallopian (credited with describing the Fallopian tube) wrote a book about syphilis, which described using a linen sheath covering the glans to protect from syphilis. The best part, it was fastened with a ribbon and lubricated with saliva!

1700s – Chemically treated condoms

Condoms of the 18th century used a newer understanding of manufacturing, and processes like chemically treating linen condoms took place to help with birth control. “Skin” condoms also entered the market, which consisted of animal bladder or intestines, softened by treating the materials with either sulphur or lye.

1855 – The original rubber condom

Fast forward to 1855, and Charles Goodyear creates the world’s first rubber condom! Refined from the rubber tree, these early condoms did not stretch or tear nearly as quickly as their animal-originated counterparts. The early rubber condoms were as thick as a bicycle inner tube (oh dear), so you might imagine the sensation might have been limited…

1920 – The arrival of latex

The invention of latex (a milky white liquid tapped from beneath the bark of the rubber tree) marked the beginning of the latex condom! In 1920, Young’s Rubber Company was the first to manufacture a latex condom from rubber tree extract. Latex was stronger and thinner than its rubber counterpart and could last up to 5 years on the shelf! Latex is the most common type of condom available today.

1950s – Lubricated, tighter and thinner

By the 1950s, improvements to latex condoms made them lubricated, tighter and thinner. Introducing a reservoir tip even helped to make space for semen and prevent leakage.

1980s – Condoms prevent HIV

Throughout much of their history, condoms were primarily considered as a form of birth control; however, in the 1980s, the HIV pandemic arrived, and it soon became apparent that condoms would be critical in preventing HIV transmission.

Condoms became the cornerstone of safe sex, and campaigns began to promote their use amongst the gay and bisexual community, who were most at risk of HIV transmission. Pamphlets and posters detailing ‘how to use condoms to prevent HIV’ were circulated among the community to prevent new transmissions.

These efforts were part of a grassroots response by community members who would go on to form organisations like ACON that were essential to advocating for the health and rights of people affected by HIV. In fact, here at ACON, we still promote condoms to this day!

1980s – First polyurethane condom

In the mid-1980s, Mark McGlothlin made created a prototype of the first polyurethane condom, with it becoming available for purchase about a decade later in 1994. Polyurethane is plastic used in foam mattresses, inside shoe soles and many medical devices, and through McGlothlin’s contributions, now as a condom.

Polyurethane condoms are better at transferring heat between partners, though less stretchy than latex condoms and slightly more likely to slip off. Polyurethane condoms were the first non-latex condom that could provide good protection from HIV and other STIs.

Some people have an allergy to latex products, meaning they would otherwise have to go without them, so it’s great to have the option!

2000s – Enter polly II (the polyisoprene condom)

By the mid-2000s, a second poly entered the ring! Polyisoprene condoms were the second contemporary non-latex condom to enter the market, providing more opportunities for those with a latex allergy.

Polyisoprene is actually synthetic latex, meaning it’s almost chemically identical to latex, except it’s created from petrochemicals and not rubber plant extract. This means it excludes the proteins that some people are allergic to. So, people who use polyisoprene condoms get the stretchy benefits of latex condoms without the risk of an allergic reaction!

Almost all non-latex condoms currently available in Australia are made out of polyisoprene and can be found primarily in the SKYN condom range by Ansell.

2010s to present – The Next Generation of Condoms

In 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a grand challenge to inspire innovation in global health research and “develop the next generation of condoms”. Of the 11 grant winners, some technological innovations include shrinking (apparently within a comfy realm), ultra-sensitive technology, applicator handles and heat-conducting properties. It appears many of these are yet to enter the market and are still in development to date.

One of the winners of this competition was from Australia. University of Wollongong, Professor Gorkin, led his team to create the ‘Geldom’ condom. It’s made from a specialty hydrogel that has been in development since winning the competition grant in 2014. Hydrogels can prevent STIs, pregnancy and could also have beneficial compounds added to them. These compounds could include pleasure enhancers or anti-viral therapies embedded in the material.

A new round of funding was awarded to the project in 2022. Professor Gorkin and his team are using it to make the product they’ve created in the lab viable for mass production while meeting regulatory requirements.

Condoms have certainly come a long way, and today they continue to be one of the most effective ways to stay safe. Find out all about condoms and how to put one on here!