THE SUNDAY POST: “Downton Downstairs” Birth Control in 1924

Photo obtained through wikimedia commons

Photo obtained through wikimedia commons

“In my day, a lady were incapable of feeling physical attraction, before she was instructed to do so, by her mama.” -The Dowager
Episode 2 of Downton’s fifth season was extremely topical. Lady Mary requested that Anna, her Lady’s maid, buy her birth control, so that she can make love to her suitor, Tony Gillingham before they marry without falling pregnant. The idea of buying birth control, even to Anna, a married woman, is horrifying. And with good reason. Anna is interrogated at the chemist’s, and only when she states a medical condition that prevents her from safely bearing children, will the saleswoman leave her alone.
We never really see what sort of birth control Mary is using, so I’ve collected some information on the possibilities!
But first, a bit of context: Margaret Sanger opened the first american birth control clinic in 1916, and Planned Parenthood wasn’t around until 1950. Birth control was illegal in america until the early nineteen sixties.
Across the sea, the first birth control clinic in England was opened in 1921, by Marie Stopes, in London. It was run exclusively by midwives.
In 1924 (where we are in season five of Downton), the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinics was founded. This would eventually save women like our beloved Anna from having to feign indecisiveness while a man bought razorblades as she waited to procure her birth control.
In the early twentieth century, in England, birth control was as taboo as sex. Lady Mary could be ruined for sleeping with Lord Gillingham, but Anna could have her reputation damaged for being the one to purchase the birth control. Even if you were ill, poor, and on your eighth child, it was considered extremely strange and awful to try and prevent another pregnancy. And as for women using birth control outside of marriage? Absolutely unheard of.
Naturally, as we see in Downton, the aristocracy had a privileged position (as usual). They could send servants to procure contraceptives, and they could often pay to have affairs hushed up, or marriages arranged hurriedly in the event of a tarnished reputation.
Additionally, it was much easier to procure birth control in a city such as London, compared to the countryside or village.
Birth control, sex, and female pleasure has been taboo since the connection was first made between vaginal intercourse and pregnancy. The importance of a virgin bride came about because of the patriarchal desire to ascertain paternity.
Early birth control methods were extremely unsafe. In ancient asian cultures, women drank lead and mercury in order to avoid falling pregnant, which lead to sterility and death. In 20th century eureocenric cultures, women douched with lysol disinfectant to avoid pregnancy, which resulted in similar illness and death.
Abstinence is commonly suggested, even today, as a form of birth control, but is not always an option, especially when marital rape is a common occurrence, or.. you know, you love your husband and want to have sex.
It was not until recent decades that abstinence was preached to adolescents as often as it is today. Teenagers were having intercourse, but in previous centuries, the average age for menarche was 20, so when there were little to know pregnant teens, it was not thought to be an issue. Adolescents could fool around until the cows same home up until the girl’s first period, and hardly anyone would be the wiser.
Only in the last century  or so have women begun getting their periods before and during adolescence.
Common methods have always included outercourse (sexual acts that avoid penetration- thought by many to be more sinful than incest and rape throughout history) and various forms of withdrawal.
In attempting to understand the menstrual cycle and how this related to fertility, many restrictions were put of female pleasure surrounding this. Some cultures forced women to have sex on their periods, other forbid it.
This is all fine and dandy, but what WAS Anna buying for Lady Mary? My first guess is that she was buying condoms, which have been around in various forms for as long as 12,000 years!
Although rubber condoms have been around since the early-Victorian Era, many tried to ensure that they were illegal. It was thought that general disease and pregnancy were a fair punishment for extramarital intercourse.
By the time Mary wants to test-drive the sexual prowess of Tony Gillingham, however, condoms were fairly normal. Soldiers were urged to use them because there was fear that they’d contract diseases abroad during the war and proceed to infect their wives.
Other options for Mary’s contraceptive of choice include sponges and cervical caps, the former of which got Margaret Sanger arrested in 1916.
Condoms were one of the only products explicitly marketed as birth control. Cervical caps were marketed as made to hold medication in place, and many products thought to have spermicidal capabilities (such as lysol) were marketed as douches. Accessing birth control in the early 20th century was all about knowing how to read the fine print. Cervical caps were often made of rubber and toted as the most effective method.
Knowing this, and knowing that what Anna buys Mary comes in a package of one, and presuming that her and Lord Gillingham fulfill their promise of making love all night, the cervical cap seems the obvious choice.
What did you think of Mary’s excursion? What about Granny’s reaction? How about Anna’s experience at the chemists? Let me know in the comments!
References and additional reading:

One thought on “THE SUNDAY POST: “Downton Downstairs” Birth Control in 1924

  1. Wendy says:

    So interesting … Great information and I was intrigued by that whole episode ! Love that you quoted the Dowager line – it was perfect wasn’t it ?

    Like

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