Taking precautions: the story of contraception

The birth control movement

In the English-speaking world the birth control movement began with the publication of Essay on the principle of population. This was written in 1798 by the Reverend Thomas Malthus, who calculated that populations grow faster than food production and therefore the world would face a crisis.

He considered that the only checks on population growth were war, famine and disease, but in later editions of his work he added 'moral restraint', by which he meant abstaining from sex.

Later writers used his work to support their arguments for birth control. One of the most influential of these was an American doctor, Charles Knowlton, who published his booklet Fruits of philosophy in 1832. Because birth control was generally considered to be immoral, for many decades Knowlton's book caused controversy wherever it was republished. The first Australian edition was published in 1878.

The methods of contraception advocated in the 1800s by writers such as Knowlton included withdrawal, inserting sponges into the vagina and vaginal douching (washing out the vagina after intercourse using glass syringes or rubber enemas).

On childbirth: 'Men never think, at least seldom think, what a hard task it is for us women to go through very often'.
Queen Victoria, mother of nine in 17 years and queen of Great Britain and Ireland, 1841.

Rubber douche or Higginson's syringe.

Rubber douche or Higginson's syringe. Powerhouse Museum collection.


Glass vaginal syringes.

Glass vaginal syringes. Powerhouse Museum collection.