The 19th Century Woman's Secret Guides to Birth ControlHistorians in the News
tags: abortion, contraception, womens history, history of sexuality, Anthony Comstock
IN 1878, SARAH CHASE WAS on the lecture circuit. A graduate of a homeopathic college and a single mother, Chase made her living in Manhattan giving talks at community spaces around the city and, afterwards, selling what contemporary police reports and newspapers called “vile articles,” including sponges, syringes, and instructions for how to, in the parlance of the era, “bring down the menses,” in other words, induce an abortion.
Examples of the kind of ad hoc birth control devices that Chase sold are now on display at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University, where visitors can peruse objects and exhibits covering ancient times to the present that demonstrate that women have always shared information about how to control their reproductive health—and others have always tried to stop them.
In the 19th century, Chase’s livelihood raised the hackles of one of the most infamous anti-birth control crusaders of modern times: Anthony Comstock, the lobbyist behind the eponymous laws that criminalized selling birth control in 1873. In an episode chronicled by Andrea Tone in Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, Comstock set up a sting operation to catch Chase in the act and promptly served her an arrest warrant.
This was the wild west era of birth control and abortion, the period after Comstock’s laws went into effect in 1873 and before Margaret Sanger’s clinics in the 1910s. A cursory, top-down look at history suggests that in this period, birth control was illegal, abortion was unheard of, and women were at the mercy of biology when it came to controlling their reproductive fates. Indeed, in 2017, a journalist stated on NPR that abortion was not a part of American life in the 19th century because the word “abortion” appeared in no newspapers from that time (an assertion that was later corrected thanks to an outcry from historians).
But to understand the way abortion and birth control were disseminated during this period is to understand how information passes outside of official channels. Birth control was a rip-roaring trade in Gilded Age America, at least for some white, working- and middle-class, literate women. Plucky entrepreneurs—some of them women like Sarah Chase—manufactured birth control and abortifacients (which were not always safe or effective), dodging authorities and courting prison time, while information about obtaining and using these items passed readily between women through coded language and whisper networks.