Fish of all things!

Animal-based condoms gave a ‘more authentic feeling’ than rubber ones

A fish, of all things, is a reproductive world champion, namely, Ms Ocean Sunfish: 300 million eggs at a time. Laying not quite as many, but still a good 7 million eggs, is her cousin, Ms Sturgeon, while at least 500,000 eggs are produced by Ms Catfish, the largest purely freshwater fish in Europe. Fish are therefore no role models when it comes to contraception.

Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century/early 20th Century, condoms from fish bladders were a very popular contraceptive: ‘Fish bladders are preferable to rubber since, being significantly finer and more durable, they are not as obtrusive as rubber during use, and the sensation is hardly affected, if at all’ (from an Ed. Baumgartner sales catalogue, Lucerne, 1908). This was because the roughly 2-millimetre-thick rubber condoms that had been available since 1855 were ‘insensitive’.

The swim bladders of fish are very different: the translucent outer skin of these air-filled pouches consists of just a very few layers of cells, thus constituting an extremely fine membrane. Allegedly, they were already in use during the time of the Cretan King Minos (1,200 BC). With respect to size, the swim bladders of the catfish and of the sturgeon, which was very frequent in our waters up until the 19th century, are both suitable. They served the fish, on the one hand, by allowing it to float in the water instead of constantly having to make swimming movements, and, on the other hand, by helping to stabilise its position.


Condoms can slip, and that’s not just a new thing

Compared to today’s condoms, however, the fish bladder condoms had two disadvantages: firstly, there was a high risk, when used feistily, that they would lose their purchase and no longer be able to be pulled out. Attempts were made to eliminate this danger by attaching a ribbon or rubber ring to the top end to hold the condom in place where it belonged.

Resourceful minds tinkered around with the optimisation of such contraptions: to hold in place without constricting. One of them was the Leipzig-based Willibald Schaarschmidt, who registered at the Imperial Patent Office in Berlin in 1910 a ‘device for securing the fish bladder condom. It consisted of two interlocking, rigid rings that held the edge of the condom in place. ‘The rings can be manufactured from any material. It is practical for the inner ring to be made of thin sheet metal, while the outer ring can also be of sheet metal, or of hard rubber, celluloid, etc.’

Secondly, fish bladder condoms were expensive, which is why people tried to reuse them. For this, they would be carefully washed, any cracks would be patched (very risky!), and they would then be spread out to dry. To prevent breakage, they were rubbed with oil and bran. They were moistened before reuse. A condom dryer is on display at the MUVS.


Another quite popular option was so-called sheep-intestine condoms, because they also consist of fine animal tissue. Here is a description from 1927 (E. C. A. Meyenberg, Zeugung und Zeugungsregelung [Procreation and regulation of procreation]):

“The caecal condoms are made from the layer of connective tissue in the skin of the caecum of sheep. These are therefore animal-based skins whose strength and size change with the age of the animal. The membranes obtained from three-month-old animals are the thinnest” – about the size of an erect human penis. Unlike the human caecum, the caecum of a sheep does not have an appendix – which would, indeed, be counterproductive for the desired purpose.


Take one sheep’s intestine ...

Manufacturing a condom from sheep’s intestines is laborious, as this commentary from 1824 shows:
“The intestinal caeca of sheep [are] soaked for some hours in water, turned inside out, macerated again in weak alkaline ley changed every twelve hours, scraped carefully to abstract the mucus membrane, leaving the peritoneal and muscular coats; then exposed to the vapour of burning brimstone, and afterwards washed with soap and water: they are then blown up, dried, cut to the length of 7 or 8 inches and bordered at the open end with a riband. […] Condoms should be soaked in water before use to make them supple. Read more on Lesley Hall’s website:


With respect to reuse, the same was true as for the fish bladder condom. Here is a quote on this matter from 1918. From: August Forel: Die sexuelle Frage (The Sexual Question), 1918, pp. 215–216

“If it is solid, you can use the same condom very often if you keep it in boric acid solution, or, after it has been washed and dried between two cloths on either side, you blow air into it, twist the opening at the base closed, and let the condom, inflated like this, dry until the morning, preferably on a piece of woollen fabric. You then untwist the opening again, stretch it immediately before it has become too hard, and the condom will be ready for use again. A measure such as this also allows the airtightness of the condom to be checked. If it is not completely airtight, it will soon collapse instead of remaining inflated. If air or water that is poured in cannot pass through, spermatozoa cannot either. You have to be very assiduous and careful to be on the safe side. If you have condoms that are too thin, you can put two of them on, one on top of the other.”


Only for libertines?

Condoms were not only used for contraception, though, but also to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, just as they are today. The term ‘condom’ appears in Meyer’s Lexicon from 1851 onwards –  albeit full of moral indignation: “Condom (condom), a sheath of gold-beater's skin [...], which is pulled over the male member by libertines before intercourse in order to prevent fertilisation, and also probably to make venereal contagion [= of sexually transmitted diseases] impossible – one of those shrewd inventions to which the depraved age has led, but which the moral man despises and, indeed, hardly knows by name.”

We’ll leave it open as to whether only ‘libertines’ were familiar with the term condom – because everyone else was, of course, known to live virtuously and chastely. Instead, let’s focus on the ‘gold-beater’s skin’ that was mentioned: this consisted of the outermost layer of skin of the intestines of an ox, elastic, tear-resistant and extremely thin – just 0.05 to 0.1 millimetres thick. It takes its name from the hammering of gold leaf, where it is used to separate the individual layers from one another. Those who play the musical instrument the oboe will also be familiar with gold-beater’s skin, which is used to seal reeds – though, here, it is referred to (incorrectly) as ‘fish skin’.

As a means of contraception, condoms are still only recommended to a moderate degree, as a look at the so-called Pearl Index shows. One can only agree with the French writer Madame de Sévigné (1626–1696), who, in 1671, in a letter to her daughter, the Comtesse Françoise Marguerite de Grignan, complained that the rubber sheath was “armour against pleasure but a cobweb against infection” (Britta-Juliane Kruse: ‘Die Arznei ist Goldes wert’: mitteralterliche Frauenrezepte, 1999).