Lysol: America’s most destructive and least effective form of contraception

Let’s take a trip into history, to a world that time and systemic hormone disruptors have forgotten–the world after the Comstock Act and before the legalization of diaphragms and cervical caps and the invention of the Pill.  I will share with you the most interesting thing I learned in co-teaching a course on the History of Sexuality in America last term:  American women were encouraged by the marketing geniuses at Lysol in the middle third of the twentieth century to use Lysol douches for both contraception and personal hygiene. 

I had heard about the Lysol contraceptive douche, but until my colleague lectured on the subject, I had no clue that it was actively promoted for decades in degrading and fearmongering advertisements by the manufacturer.  It was an enlightening moment for me and for the students when my co-teacher explained in her lecture that Lysol was very popular during the Depression, because it was 1) inexpensive, 2) probably something you had already lying around the house, and 3) didn’t require a physician’s assistance (unless it caused internal injuries!)

(Remember:  I am not a modern U.S. historian.  The only thing recommending contraception in my period of expertise, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is perhaps the fact that most were non-toxic, if also as ineffective as Lysol.  The most dangerous “menstrual regulator” available was jumping off of fences or carrying heavy loads of wood, or eating too many juniper berries or drinking too much pennyroyal or squaw mint tea.)   

Nicole Pasulka at Mother Jones, riffing on Andrea Tone’s Devices and Desires,  has assembled a brief history of Lysol’s contraceptive application as well as a slideshow of the advertisements promoting the Lysol douche.  Warning:  this may be offensive and/or induce involuntary buttcheek clenching in women especially.  Clicquez a vos risques!  Pasulka explains:

[W]omen who couldn’t afford or gain access to medically administered birth control had to come up with their own strategies for staying baby free. Douching was cheap, accessible, and widely advertised as a feminine hygiene product; however, as Andrea Tone writes in the book Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, it was also the most common form of birth control from 1940 until 1960—when the oral contraceptive pill arrived on the market.

The most popular brand of douche was Lysol—an antiseptic soap whose pre-1953 formula contained cresol, a phenol compound reported in some cases to cause inflammation, burning, and even death. By 1911 doctors had recorded 193 Lysol poisonings and five deaths from uterine irrigation. Despite reports to the contrary, Lysol was aggressively marketed to women as safe and gentle. Once cresol was replaced with ortho-hydroxydiphenyl in the formula, Lysol was pushed as a germicide good for cleaning toilet bowls and treating ringworm, and Lehn & Fink’s, the company that made the disinfectant, continued to market it as safeguard for women’s “dainty feminine allure.”

Douching may have been cheaper than condoms or diaphragms and available over the counter in most drugstores, but it didn’t work. In a 1933 study, Tone writes, nearly half of the 507 women who used douching as a birth control method ended up pregnant.

But if false advertising with highly suspect results weren’t bad enough, the ads promoted a level of misogyny and female insecurity both laughable and frightening by today’s standards.

It’s good to remember the bad old days, ain’t it?  I wonder if someone can scare up some old syringes and doucheing equipment to offer a little material culture flava?  Oh gee:  lookee here!  (True story:  when I tried to save a copy of this photo under the term “douchebag,” I was informed that I already had a photo called “douchebag” saved to my blog folder.)  So here on the right is douchebag #2, something that looks like it came out of the 1940s or 1950s (via the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.) 

Just for laughs, let’s see what I saved under “douchebag” in the past, here on the left.  Oh, I guess I should have just saved it under “Rick Santorum.”

Make no mistake, boys and girls:  there’s no such thing as irrevocable progress.  While I hope it’s true that the arc of history bends towards justice, there’s no guarantee that it will bend the right way in what’s left of our lifetimes.  The United States lived nearly ninety years with the Comstock Act and before the release of the Pill, or about three reproductive lifetimes of carbolic acid and Lysol douches.

36 thoughts on “Lysol: America’s most destructive and least effective form of contraception

  1. I use some of these ads every year in a class on the interwar U.S., and each time the slow dawn of realization and horror on students’ faces is something I cherish.


  2. I’d seen this in Tone’s book and also in Good Housekeeping and the rest. It’s an especially pernicious dangerous campaign brought to you by the advertisers who dreamed up various forms of social anxiety (halitosis, etc.) to sell more Listerine or Odor-o-no. Apparently all Americans should be nervous about smelling bad, according to the mad men, but with Lysol, they hit the true jackpot of advertising: lady-shaming.


  3. Wow, that second-to-last picture looks *exactly* like what I found in a linen closet back in the day when I was old enough to know it was something I wasn’t really supposed to be finding there, but young enough not to know quite what the hell it was all about. And yes, my mother did her reproductive work (and avoidance) in *precisely* that time window–late 1940s through late 1950s. The very sound of the word “cresol” stings the imagination, maybe because it seems to resonate with “creosote,” which is what they put on railroad ties for preservation purposes. I wonder if there’s more than a phoneme-enol connection between the two substances? I got out of even thinking of doing nineteenth century history partly because of the health advertising that you couldn’t avoid in the newspapers that seemed to be the staple primary source for practicing in that period. And I assume that things didn’t improve that quickly in the twentieth century.


  4. One of our former students did her M.A. thesis on this subject: “Prescriptions for modern womanhood: Advertising Lysol in interwar North America.” Their booklets were amazingly full of coded language that made the message of contraceptive and abortifacent use marginally decipherable.

    Ugh, ugh, ugh!


  5. I’d have to take issue with one part of the snippet you post:

    …the ads promoted a level of misogyny and female insecurity both laughable and frightening by today’s standards.

    Has she met today’s standards? In an era of elective vaginal tucks and labioplasty and anal bleaching for women? Because without it, you’re just not girly/sexy/feminine enough, and men will be repelled?



  6. When I married in the mid 60’s I was given one of these “douche bags” for “feminine hygene”. I think I used it once. What a pain! I also felt I was pretty tidy about myself anyway. I was on the pill then and what a godsend that was. My mother wanted me to get a diaphram and I was grossed out about that. She was concerned that if I was on the pill I would be “promiscuous”. I went on the pill a month before my marriage. OOOOOhHHHH!


  7. Notorious: that’s a great point. The author is on firmer ground in pointing out that those standards are laughable, if not frightening, by today’s labiaplasticfantastic standards. (Maybe laughably tame by today’s standards? Laughably prescient?)

    On the subject of labioplasty: Don’t we have enough to worry about w/r/t the body parts that show outside of clothing and bathing suits? (At least, I worry, but then I get over it because it’s boring.) What’s next: plastic surgery involving only internal organs?

    I say the physicians who invented this stuff should all be subject to vaginal probes, whether or not they have vaginas.


  8. Indyanna: I found one of those in the closet too — which may be why my mother kept getting pregnant for the first few years of her marriage. I am old enough to have taken sex ed as the DB was on the way out. We were told that one effect was to actually push more jizz up into the uterus and that it could even cause pregnancy.


  9. When I was in seventh or eighth grade — long about 1987 or so — some classmates and I were making a video for some kind of class project. For some reason, we shot part of it in my friend’s basement bathroom. When we screened it my friend went into fits of giggles when she noticed that her mother’s douche bag was visible, hanging on the shower curtain rod behind us.

    I don’t think anyone else knew what it was, or exactly why it was funny — but we got the message that it was feminine and ridiculous.


  10. Back in the early 1970s, when I went to college my progressive mother made sure I had a diaphragm. Part of the kit I got (and I can’t remember whether on the advice of the GYN or just my mother) was a kit for douches. I think I may have tried it once and then gave up.


  11. Unclench those buttcheeks, wimmin, and practice the absolutely safe, 100% effective method of contraception recommended by the burly girls of Roxie’s World:


    That is all, sisters.


  12. Back in the day, a douchebag was standard feminine household equipment, which is a frightening as you think it is. The reason it’s not that way now is due to the marketing of the disposable douche, with a single-use container.

    I grew up in that transition time, from douchebag to Massengill, from belted feminine protection pads to “beltless” pads with the adhesive strip. Just taking care of Down There was a serious production effort, kids — and we’re not even talking about FDS, are we?

    It took the full-court press of Our Bodies, Ourselves and feminist health collectives just to free women from the constant thought that Being Unfresh was the female Mark of Cain — and that basic soap and water would do just fine.

    (and, Roxie, megadittoes –)


  13. We had the full pictured kit in the linen closet, too, and I think there might have been a few pre-packaged douches as well (though perhaps those were enemas; a sibling had troubles in that department). If my mother used it for that purpose, however, she hid it well; I only remember use as a hot water bottle (and in fact I may still own the darn thing and use it for that purpose today; the other attachments are long gone). I definitely remember the women’s magazines and TV soap operas being rife with Massengill ads. I don’t think I ever guessed they were being advertised for contraceptive purposes, however, though we may have been warned *not* to rely on douching with various substances (coke comes to mind, for some reason) in high school biology (this is a girls’ school, early 1980s). I certainly never heard of douching with lysol, though we used plenty of it around the house, and I can well remember both the dry hands and the lingering smell (which I would *not* describe as “alluring”) that went with it.

    Caveat: one of my maternal great-grandfathers was a doctor, and I suspect that his wife and female descendants had better-than-average knowledge of and access to birth control. My maternal grandmother was an “oops” baby, arriving well after two older siblings (at the very end of the 19th century), but that sort of proves the point. There may also be a socioeconomic angle, though, since women on my father’s side, which did not include any doctors, also reliably had 1-2 children starting in the late 19th century. They weren’t rich, but they were solidly middle-class and urban, and seem to have had access to some sort of relatively safe and effective method (my impression is some variation on the diaphragm, which I’m pretty sure my mother used, but I’m not sure).


  14. Roxie: Around ten years ago (may still be the case, but my anecdotal information is old) there was a dermatological medication often prescribed to teenagers that was highly teratogenic. In order to obtain a prescription, a girl or woman had to sign a pledge to use two methods of birth control, and had to list them. “Lesbianism” was not an acceptable answer. “Abstinence,” however, was. This made no sense to me whatever, since I am quite sure that the pregnancy rate among teenagers who predict they will abstain is much higher than that among teenagers who identify as lesbians.


  15. Just finished looking through all the ads in the slideshow. It’s fascinating, in a repugnant sort of way. Things that stood out for me include the repeated, often explicit statement that any distance or coldness between husband and wife is “her fault”; frequent (deliberate, I think, and to some extent realistic) eliding of whether sexual problems in a marriage might be due to waning of the husband’s desire, the wife’s desirability, or the wife’s “confidence” (but continued insistence that, whatever the cause, she can fix it by following her doctor’s advice to douche — an odd sort of disempowering empowerment); and the insistence that, if a woman is tired and/or feeling “old” after several years of marriage (and, presumably, several children), that too, is her fault, and entirely within her control to fix (by douching, again, and proper diet). Assuming the ads are arranged in chronological order, it also seems that Lysol, having created an anxiety and corresponding perceived need/demand, eventually had to protect not only against homemade remedies (which sound considerably more benign), but also against “imposter” disinfectants (to which, however, they could handily attribute any injuries, the possibility for which seems to be acknowledged in some of the later ads, and in the production of a booklet of “explicit” instructions — written, interestingly enough, by a “leading female physician,” though all the doctors who give magically marriage-saving advice in the text of the ads are “he”s). Oh, yes, and one of the last ads says that you *need* a “poison” to kill those nasty, allure-destroying germs; nothing gentler will do. One more version of better living through chemistry, I suppose. Oy.


  16. I think that these ad campaigns, created by men, betray the common and not resolved male terror of female genitalia. The majority of them (as if I could know, right? But I’m writing it anyway thus betraying something of my sexual past) don’t know what “down there” is anyway, what the parts are or how they function. All they know if that they like to put “it” there for pleasure, but that that dark place “down there” can get back at them by getting pregnant. Sex education, using real words, real pictures, etc. would seem to be the only way out of that still very prevalent male ignorance and fear.


  17. I am sure you are right, UE.

    I once had a boyfriend who thought that women peed through their vaginas. Yes, he has a college degree; and no, I don’t think he was unusually ignorant.


  18. The show “Boardwalk Empire” might be giving new life to this method. In the episode “Family Limitation,” Nucky’s mistress Margaret Schroeder gets a copy of Margaret Sanger’s book of the same name (from the head of the local WCTU no less). The book illustrates douching and in a later episode Nucky smashes a bottle of Lysol Margaret has hid in the bathroom. I can’t find a digitized copy of Sanger’s book so I don’t know if she actually advocated this method or it was made up by the show’s writers.


  19. “female insecurity both laughable and frightening by today’s standards.”

    I doubt female insecurity is lessened in our generation, just less acknowledged, addressed or accepted. It certainly is as sensationalized, but in less obvious ways. Entire shaved nether regions and mockery of those who are not prepubescently shaved. Wipes and sprays and ointments. One just needs to pick up a magazine aimed at women and young girls to realize, the more things change the more they stay the same…….


  20. Ruth…you are correct. While I don’t know the name of it, what you are thinking of is a prescription medication for severe acne–the type that doesn’t yield to a Stri-dex pad or Clearasil. My sister took it for a time.


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  26. Good post but … it’s really a water bottle and is labeled as such in the picture. They were multi-use, and especially used as an old-timey heating pad (before those wonderful contraptions were invented and everyone got electric). Were they used for douching? Yes … and for enemas, too. Enemas being an old-timey way of getting rid of pin worms in children (ask me how I know), whereas now we use drugs.


  27. A very appropriate post when your president (I am in Canada) suggest internal use of disinfectants like Lysol. On second thought, he might have overheard something in his childhood………


  28. Nobody’s mentioned that a strong soap or Lysol douche was also used to abort a fetus. The tip had to enter the cervix to accomplish this, I guess, and the solution had to be hot.
    I wish I never had heard about this the way I did. At age 14 I overheard my mother tell a pregnant friend not to try it because it was painful AND IT DIDN’T WORK FOR HER. Imagine how I felt.


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