Johnny Foreigner

Jonathan Glancey
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:31

Condom was Charles II's physician and was knighted by the Merry Monarch for his services. True or false? False, sadly, although it sounds convincing. In fact, no one really knows the origin of the word condom. What we do know is that they have been in use since at least 1,350BC when Egyptian tribesmen used them not as contraceptive devices but as protection from disease, injury and insect bites. The strawberry-flavoured, anatomically shaped, lubricated, spermicidally charged condom had to wait another 3,340 years.

In the meantime, the Egyptians discovered it prevented pregnancy and, slowly, the condom stretched around the world. It has not been universally acclaimed. Only last year, while Cardinal Adrianus Simonis, head of the Roman Catholic church in the Netherlands, gave sanction to the blessed condom, Cardinal Maurice Otunga, head of the RC church in Kenya, led a public burning of the demon sheath. A British Safety Council advert, featuring the Pope wearing a hard hat and bearing the legend "The 11th Commandment: Thou shalt always wear a condom", went down like a lead balloon: there were 1,192 complaints. A Manchester housewife, meanwhile, was awarded pounds 6,000 damages for being put off her favourite beverage for life; she came across a strawberry-flavoured condom in a box of Tetley teabags.

Of people using contraceptives in the UK, 24 per cent choose condoms. Two-thirds are bought from chemists; there are 33,500 Durex vending machines countrywide.

Early condoms were neither tight-fitting nor particularly hygienic. Made of pig gut, linen or sheep's caecum (a blind alley in the large gut), they were tied at the end with ribbons, rinsed out and reused. Gabriele Fallopius, a 16th-century Italian physician, asked 1,100 men to try out his new skin-tight linen condom and noted that none caught syphilis, endemic at the time.

Later developments tended to be decorative. Christie's put a reserve of pounds 200-pounds 300 on a "French reusable condom, 8.5in long, pig gut, with yellow silk pull-string, C19th", three years ago; it came in an envelope (where else for a French letter?) marked "moisten before use". Two years before, an 18th-century illustrated condom featuring three naughty nuns fetched pounds 3,300.

When Goodyear and Hancock invented crepe rubber in 1843 the condom was transformed into the familiar "rubber johnny". The Durex trademark made its debut in 1929. Rubber gave way to gossamer-thin latex in the next decade. Then came electronic testing, lubrication (1953) and anatomical profiling (1969). Durex itself steered away from gimmickry until last year (although it braved ridicule to sponsor Formula One racing in 1978), when it launched flavoured condoms and put sex education on the Internet.

Musical condoms are available from Hungary and talking condoms ("Let's party") from California. A paint-on latex condom that takes 20 minutes to dry is presumably for studs only. As for the ordinary fella, the EC-approved condom is 170mm long (6.8in), 10mm longer than the British. Italian Lotharios, meanwhile, plump for "extra large", 200mm versions whenever available.

But neither hopeful Latins nor self-deprecating Brits are advised to adopt the Lanzarote condom: given out by the island's council, they were found, like the teabags, to have little perforations. The packets had been stapled together. You'd be better off with pig gut

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