Devices and Desires A History of Contraceptives in America

Andrea Tone

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

384 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
A down-and-out sausage case 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 fascinating individuals who make up the history of contraception in America. Scholars of birth control typically frame its history as one of physicians, lawmakers, and political activists. But 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. She combines lively portraits of figures with a thorough history of technological and industrial developments.

Tone begins with the passage of the 1873 Comstock Act, which criminalized the birth control business, and ends with the inventions of today (including Depo-Provera and Norplant). Along the way, she assesses the social and economic effects of chemical prophylaxis kits for World War I soldiers, condoms, the Lysol antiseptic douche, and the 1973 Dalkon Shield disaster (among others). In lively and engaging prose, her book illuminates the industry's transformation from an illicit trade located in basement workshops and pornography outlets to one of the most successful, legitimate businesses in American history.


Praise for Devices and Desires

"Marvelously eye-opening . . . Brings an original dimension to the story by recounting the development of the American contraceptive industry, and demonstrating its resilience in the face of militant attempts to suppress it . . . Tone convincingly upends [long-held views and] offers fascinating vignettes."—Daniel J. Kevles, The New York Times Book Review

"Once in a while, you come across a book that is so original, so persuasive, so meticulously researched and documented that it overrides some of your most taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs. Devices and Desires is such a work."—Barbara Seaman, The Nation

"The best historians are great detectives, able both to ferret out facts hidden beneath the apparent surface of events and to construct new narratives that make those facts convincing. Andrea Tone is such a historian . . . [She] employs superb research skills to investigate questions of business and social history in three periods: the black market era of the late nineteenth century, the time of growing legitimacy during the first half of the twentieth, and the years of new technology and medicalization following World War II. Drawing effectively on trade journals, business records, personal papers, medical studies, credit reports, and arrest records, Tone demonstrates what Americans did rather than what they were told to do . . . This important book presents remarkable new material about the multifaceted contraceptive business and should command the attention of American historians. Well written and engaging, it compels the profession to alter its outdated understanding of sexual knowledge and practice. With its publication, historians can no longer plead ignorance of its facts in their own defense."—Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Smith College, The Journal of American History

"[A] revealing and often riveting work."—Jonathan Saltzman, Chicago Tribune

"Tone's beautifully written history introduces many vital but neglected participants in the history of contraception."—Janet Golden, The Women's Review of Books

"What happens when we view birth control as a business? The rewards are rich, as Andrea Tone's Devices and Desires elegantly demonstrates . . . Devices and Desires is lively, engaging, and beautifully written. Tone has done extensive and creative research in primary and secondary sources. She covers astonishingly vast and varied terrain, including fascinating discussions of changing technologies, contraceptives in the military, oligopolization of the condom industry, eugenics, and population control . . . Devices and Desires is a marvellous book, one that fulfills the promise implied in this journal's title. Seamlessly connecting the history of intimacy to the history of business, it is a most wonderful demonstration of the relation of enterprise to society."—Wendy Gamber, Indiana University, Enterprise and Society

"Andrea Tone's fascinating book, Devices and Desires, takes the wraps off birth control's long journey from illegality in the nineteenth century to legality in the twentieth. Women today are still suffering the aftereffects, not only from their less-than-perfect methods of birth control, but also from America's failure to develop better methods for all women at all times during their reproductive lives. How couples 'made do' with the often faulty methods available makes one marvel at our human ingenuity. Devices and Desires is must reading for anyone in women's rights and health."—Alexander Sanger, chair, International Planned Parenthood Council

"A brilliant and original work of research, Devices and Desires promises to transform our historical understanding of the place of birth control in American life. Professor Tone does a superb job structuring a sophisticated and subtle examination of a sensitive subject. Devices and Desires is very well written, packed with interesting people, fascinating analysis, and surprises: a work of significant scholarship that is fun to read. Tone's book has major policy implications not just for the issue of birth control but also for the debate over health care in the United States. It is a work of the first importance."—Michael Bellesiles, author of Arming America

"In this fascinating and engaging book Andrea Tone brings together social and business history with the material culture of contraception. Peppering her narrative with revealing personal stories. Tone provides a vibrant history that is as timely as today's headlines. I highly recommend it!"—Judith W. Leavitt, author Typhoid Mary

"Andrea Tone provides valuable new insights into what it was like to make, sell, buy, and use contraceptives in a period when contraception developed from an illicit trade to a big business. Her account challenges the conventional view that contraceptive history is a tale of progress in which bad, over-the-counter contraceptives were replaced by good, medically prescribed methods."—Carole R. McCann, author of Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916-1945

"A detailed, critical, compassionate, and compelling analysis of Americans' century-long struggle with and over contraception."—Philip Scranton, author of Endless Novelty

"Tone, a historian at Georgia Institute of Technology, offers a lively history of the demand for contraceptives in the U.S and the remarkable variety of people who set out to meet that demand. Rather than concentrating on physicians, legislators, and activists such as Margaret Sanger, Tone explores 'the technological and industrial developments that have been equally important in transforming Americans' lives.' Beginning in 1873, with the passage of the federal Comstock Act, which declared contraceptives obscene, part 1 examines the 'contraceptive entrepreneurs' who practiced what was for many years an illegal trade, regulated by no one. In part 2, 'From Smut to Science,' Tone considers the development of relatively reliable contraceptive techniques, including diaphragms, douches, and condoms; part 3, 'The Medicalization of Contraceptives,' covers birth control pills, Norplant, and intrauterine devices. For much of the period Tone discusses, contraception was illegal or disreputable, yet millions of Americans needed these products n0 and found ways to obtain them. That perhaps is the most enduring lesson of Tone's enlightening study."—Mary Carroll, Booklist

"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' . . . Lively and informative."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Andrea Tone, an associate professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is the author of The Business of Benevolence and the editor of Controlling Reproduction: An American History. She lives in Decatur, Georgia.
Read the full excerpt


  • Andrea Tone

  • Andrea Tone, an associate professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is the author of The Business of Benevolence and the editor of Controlling Reproduction: An American History. She lives in Decatur, Georgia.