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Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America [Paperback]

by Andrea Tone
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1, 2002 0809038161 978-0809038169 1st
From thriving black market to big business, the commercialization of birth control in the United States

In Devices and Desires, Andrea Tone breaks new ground by showing what it was really like to buy, produce, and use contraceptives during a century of profound social and technological change. A down-and-out sausage-casing worker by day who turned surplus animal intestines into a million-dollar condom enterprise at night; inventors who fashioned cervical caps out of watch springs; and a mother of six who kissed photographs of the inventor of the Pill -- these are just a few of the individuals who make up this riveting story.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

There were the dark days of frequent unwanted pregnancies, quack remedies and backstreet abortions; then there was the Pill. Or so we often believe about the history of birth control in America. But the subject, as Tone, associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, shows, is much more complex. Indeed, our Victorian forebears were familiar with several contraceptive choices, from condoms to pessaries and douches, which were readily available from small shops or by mail order until the Comstock Act deemed them obscene in 1873. But the new law succeeded only in driving the contraceptive business underground, as regulations were inconsistently enforced. By the 1920s, birth control began to be seen as a public policy issue; activist Margaret Sanger, who focused particularly on birth control for the poor, was instrumental in gaining legitimacy for the movement by making contraception the purview of the medical profession. Her efforts led to the popularity of the custom-fitted diaphragm and, later, to the development of the Pill. Tone focuses on contraception as a matter of customer demand and market responses, while also dealing with major controversies, including the Pill's health risks; religious objections to it; alleged racism in birth control policy; and the Dalkon Shield tragedy, in which business decisions contributed to the marketing of an unsafe IUD. Bringing the story up to 1970, Tone ends with a plea for increased research, sex education and affordable over-the-counter options for both men and women. Although some might argue that condoms already fill this need, Tone points out the irony that "the most frequently used contraceptive in th[is] country by a wide margin is irreversible female sterilization." Though some readers may find its conclusions oversimplified, this overview remains lively and informative. Illus. not seen by PW.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Catholic obstetrician John Rock considered the pill a "morally permissible variant of the rhythm method" and assisted in its development. This is one of the many fascinating complexities found in the annals of contraception and recounted in these two books. U.S. historian Tone chronicles U.S. practices from the 1800s and Comstock era censorship, when underground cottage-industry products for both men and women thrived, advertised via euphemisms like "feminine hygiene." Under pressure from changing laws and Margaret Sanger, physicians gradually took over, touting first the diaphragm, then the pill and the IUD. As Tone recounts, condoms have remained popular; but lawsuits from medical methods and high consumer expectations post-pill have led to dampened development of new contraceptives and to sterilization's becoming popular. This account of the women who wanted to avoid pregnancy and the men and women who wanted to help them and profit from them is detailed, readable, and exhaustively referenced. For her focus on "the Pill," British historian Marks covers scientific development, testing, and use in the United States and beyond Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Marks's account is as detailed and well referenced as Tone's, somewhat more scholarly, and sometimes hard to follow since chapters are based on subtopics rather than time units. Her more medical/scientific detail and global perspective complement the coverage found in Elizabeth Watkins's On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives 1950-70 (Johns Hopkins Univ., 1998). Both Marks's and Tone's books are recommended for academic and large public libraries, and the latter is appropriate for smaller public libraries as well. Consider also James Reed's Eve's Herbs (1978) about herbal birth control since ancient times. (Tone's illustrations not seen.) Martha Cornog, Philadelphia
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1st edition (May 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809038161
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809038169
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.5 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #172,769 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Secret History of Sex and Birth Control July 17, 2001
When I reviewed this extraordinary book for THE NATION Magazine (issue of June 11, 2001) my piece was entitled "The Secret History of Sex." It's fun to scoop the N.Y. TIMES.! The lead review in the NY Times Book Review for July 22, 2001 is also of DEVICES AND DESIRES, and is entitled "The Secret History of Birth Control."
DEVICES AND DESIRES is so original, so persuasive, so meticulously researched and documented that it overrides some of our most taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs., It opens in 1873 when the Comstock law was passed in the U. S. Congress, banning both pornography and birth control devices. The new law must have made contraception known to some folks who had never heard of it before (or maybe the fact that it was banned made people think it might be fun) because birth control quickly grew into a huge bootleg industry, as popular as liquor was during prohibition, and offering many more products and options for both women and men than we have today. Some were dangerous, some were ineffective, but others were quite good and many couples doubled up on protection, with husband and wife each using one or more methods. The birth rate in the U.S. fell by more than half from 1880-1940, even though we were later led to believe by Margaret Sanger and others that until birth control was largely taken over by doctors,( in the 1930s) it was quite scarce. You will be astonished at the documented information in this book and mesmerized by the case histories of the colorful and inventive bootleg birthcontrol entrepreneurs.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
For nearly a century, from the advent of repressive Comstockery in the 1870s to the development of The Pill in the 1950s and 1960s, the history of contraception in our national history suggests several irrefutable truths. National and state governments, ignoring the realities of consumer demand for safe and effective contraception, have unsuccessfully attempted to repress not only the creation of birth control devices but have actively engaged in suppression of information about them.
Despite official opposition, a semi-covert, but vibrant underground market economy developed to satisfy the insatiable demand for methods to control sexual reproduction. Professor Andrea Tone's meticulously researched and felicitously written "Devices and Desires" is at once a survey of the technology of contraception, a political analysis of the struggle for women to obtain control over the reproductive lives and an engaging social history of the advocates, producers and consumers of contraceptive devices over the past century and a half.
Recounted through a series of analytical and chronological narratives, Professor Tone provides an interesting perspective on Anthony Comstock, whose name now symbolizes sexual prudery and repression. Tone comments that Comstock's fierce advocacy of governmental intervention and suppression of birth control contains its own class and ethnic bias. Comstock purposely ignored the fact that his most loyal supporters not only abetted, but profited from, the production of birth control devices. (Tone's exposure of Samuel Colgate's hypocrisy exemplifies this blatant double standard.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Entertaining and Important History August 20, 2001
We have long been used to birth control as being legal, safe, and available. There was a long history of prudery on the subject, though, which continues to have repercussions on our society and our birth rates to this day. _Devices & Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America_ (Hill and Wang) by Andrea Tone, is a sophisticated examination of how Americans went from covertly using illegal contraception in the last century to medically approved versions during this one. It is a fascinating tale, full of passion, science, repression, American ingenuity, and Horatio Alger stories of making it big in the contraception business.
The dour presiding figure over all these proceedings is Anthony Comstock, who built himself up into a vice busting public servant, a special agent of the Post Office, and enforcer of the Comstock Act of 1873. He regarded contraceptives as obscenities, insisting for religious reasons that abstinence and the then poorly-understood rhythm method were the only moral means of birth control. Although many Americans agreed with him, Tone shows convincingly that they also were ready to use contraceptives and to tolerate their sale. The pictures of small time contraceptive entrepreneurs, filling a need that respectable manufacturers shunned, is fascinating. Frequently the owner of a contraceptive factory was a woman, or an immigrant, who made everything in a back room. It took a little know-how, some natural rubber, and some sulfur for the vulcanization process; a little capital could bring high profit. Julius Schmidt, having immigrated from Germany in 1882, went to work at a sausage casing firm, but realized that the casings could be made into something more profitable. Comstock busted him in 1890 for �selling articles to prevent conception.
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