Despite major cultural, legal, and medical impediments the use of birth control, including abortion, by American women was widespread at the turn of the century. In their quest to control unwanted pregnancies, American women could be surprisingly resourceful in the methods they used. In this audio excerpt from a 1974 interview with historian Sherna Gluck, Miriam Allen deFord described methods of birth control in vogue in the 1910s, including spermicides, douches, the Dutch pessary (an early diaphragm), and the use of ergot pills to induce abortion.Listen to Audio:
Miriam Allen DeFord: When I was living in Boston about to be... about to go to San Diego to be married, I knew a woman doctor—a Russian woman, I can’t remember her name anymore, a refugee from czarist Russia—who, ah, instructed me on the use of the... the Dutch pessary. Seems it orginated in Holland. And it was very embarrassing, you’d go in a drugstore and you’d have a... get the clerk in a corner—it was always a man—and whisper to him: did he have any Dutch pessaries? [Laughs] And she showed me how to use it, and I was rather a demi-virgin at the time, so she couldn’t demonstrate exactly, but she gave me information, gave me some kind of tablet or something to use before I could use that.
Sherna Gluck: And what was that supposed to do?
DeFord: Well, it was a less reliable form of birth control. It was, you know, these ah, things about so long, that you insert like a Tampax.
Gluck: Oh, like a suppository?
DeFord: Yeah, yeah, a suppository. I don’t know what was in it, but it was supposedly a germicide or spermicide. [Laughs].
Gluck: And you used both of those?
DeFord: Well, no, I just used that until I could use the pessary.
Gluck: I see.
DeFord: After... I never used anything but a pessary. Um, it was long before the days of the pill or the—what do they call it—the internal device or anything like that.
Gluck: The intra-uterine device.
DeFord: That was all most people just... And they told us what they say now, that douching is absolutely useless, but of course in those days you always douched afterwards.
Gluck: Even though you used the pessary?
DeFord: Oh yes, even with the pessary. It was safer. Now I remember one horrible [chuckles] thing I did. I, ah, at that time in the douche, you’ve got—[pause] I don’t know why I’m having so much trouble remembering the names of these darn things—but it was a very powerful poison and you’ve got little tablets like that, and you put it in three quarts of water. And, ah, one day, I was... when I was taking a bath I discovered that my pessary had become torn and I got panicky. And I took three of these damn things and stuck’em up [laughing] and in consequence I scarred myself very badly and pretty near had to have a hysterectomy or something. So I don’t know whether it was because of that I’ve never, never to my knowledge been pregnant.
Gluck: Now with the pessary, did you have to have a special instrument for inserting it?
DeFord: No, you didn’t need any instruments. It was very soft rubber and the middle part was very thin rubber and you... All that was needed was a little dexterity of learning how to put it in, and how to adjust it so that it was in the right place. But to, ah... as I remember, you, you put vaseline on the edge, on the heavy edge first, to make it easier to insert. It looked like a little cap. It had this thick inflated rubber edge, and then the thin rubber cap above it.
Gluck: Yes, I think that’s the same as the modern diaphragm.
DeFord: Well, I don’t know, because as I say, it’s been a long time since I needed one. [Laughing] But, ah, I don’t even remember how much they were or how long they lasted, but sooner or later you had to get a new one.
Gluck: Now did you have to have a doctor’s prescription for it? Or could you go in...
DeFord: No, not at that time. I never had a doctor’s prescription for it. And twice when I, when I missed a period and I was afraid that I was pregnant, I went to a doctor, and the first doctor gave me ergot pills and said if they didn’t work he was perfectly willing to perform an abortion. And I was in San Diego, and it was utterly illegal at the time. The second time I didn’t need it. I knew myself that I could take ergot and it worked.
Gluck: How common was the giving of the ergotrate when a woman missed her period?
DeFord: I have no idea because I belonged to a reticent generation that never talked about sex. So I had no idea what anybody else I knew did, or used. Except that once I happened to open a bureau drawer of my mother’s and found her douche bag, which was all she used, and it didn’t work because she had three of us and two miscarriages [laughing].
Gluck: So you really don’t know what the other...
DeFord: I had no idea what anybody used except me. Except back in those days, the same way if you know a really illustrious person now, you take it for granted he is or has been a communist, in those days he was or had been an anarchist. And the, the Russian woman doctor who gave me all this was an Anarchist.
DeFord: And when I lived in Los Angeles about 1916/17, practically all the people I knew were anarchists, including another woman doctor who was the one that I had to go to when I scarred myself so badly, and who probably saved my life.
Source: Oral history courtesy of Sherna Gluck, Feminist History Project.