“When Pirates Feast … Who Pays?” Condoms, Advertising, and the Visibility Paradox, 1920s and 1930s

Abstract

For most of the 20th century, the condom in the United States was a cheap, useful, but largely unmentionable product. Federal and state statutes prohibited the advertising and open display of condoms, their distribution by mail and across state lines, and their sale for the purpose of birth control; in some states, even owning or using condoms was illegal. By the end of World War I, condoms were increasingly acceptable for the prevention of sexually transmitted disease, but their unique dual function—for disease prevention and contraception—created ongoing ambiguities for sellers, consumers, and distributors as well as for legal, political, health, and moral leaders. Not until the 1970s did condoms emerge from the shadows and join other personal hygiene products on open drugstore and supermarket shelves and in national advertisements. Then came the 1980s and AIDS when, despite the rise of Ronald Reagan, the radical right’s demonization of condoms, and the initial reluctance of condom merchants to market to gay constituencies, the HIV/AIDS epidemic slowly but inexorably propelled the condom to the top of the prevention agenda. The condom’s journey from lewd device to global superstar was fitful, but colorful. The Comstock Act of 1873, prohibiting birth control information and devices, created a vast underground operation—periodically illuminated, however, by arrests, protests, legal proceedings, and media coverage. This essay chronicles one such moment of illumination: the legal battle in the 1920s and 1930s over the legitimacy and legality of the Trojan Brand condom trademark and the unusual series of advertisements produced by the Youngs Rubber Corporation, makers of Trojans, to dramatize the ethical and economic issues of the trademark battle. Culminating in Youngs Rubber Corporation v. C.I. Lee & Co., Inc. (45F, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit 103 [1930]), this landmark case in trademark law established the right of the Trojan Brand condom, despite its ambiguous dual function, to the protection of a federal trademark. I seek to show how the Youngs antipiracy ad series illuminates the paradox of visibility by illuminating the paradox of any binary division: to establish the one depends inevitably on invoking or making visible—even if to suppress—the other. This essay is a case study in the negotiation of such a dialectic.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    By a number of accounts, “pencils” was a shared code word for condoms. One longtime condom dealer even advertised as “Charley the Pencil Man” (materials in author’s personal collection). L.E. Shunk of Akron manufactured a “secret service automatic pencil” for Texide in which a working pencil comes loaded with two prophylactics. The ease of asking for a “Texide refill” overcomes “all sales resistance.” Many other products were designed to conceal or camouflage the condom, including cigarette cases, matchbooks, pens, and lipsticks. This continues today, now including feminine and gay-themed products.

  2. 2.

    When direct-to-consumer print advertising for condoms became legal in the 1970s, condom makers encountered the strength of the long-standing “separation of powers” governing the condom’s visibility (Myron and Redford 1974). For example, women’s magazines like Redbook accepted only medically oriented condom ads that emphasized birth control, while men’s magazines like Playboy accepted ads for STD prevention but refused those for contraception (said Hugh Hefner, as quoted in Myron and Redford [1974]: “For our readers, it’s a downer”). George W. Bush’s PEPFAR HIV/AIDS initiative in Africa in the 2000s mandated that HIV/STD counseling and the provision of condoms be distinct and physically separated from pregnancy counseling. HIV/AIDS introduced a heterosexual/homosexual divide as well, as though condoms could be stamped “for heterosexually transmitted disease prevention only.”

  3. 3.

    Perhaps the intent was to mimic the strategy of the feminine hygiene industry, evading Comstock by creating its own lexicon of euphemisms: Lysol doubled as a floor cleaner and as a contraceptive douche; advertised as a “germicide” rather than a “spermicide,” the sellers employed such doublespeak to gain widespread advertising in mainstream national magazines. What readers understood is debatable. See Sarch (1994) for more.

  4. 4.

    Allan M. Brandt (1987) and Alexandra Lord (2010) tracked condom history through the military archives of the two world wars; Andrea Tone (2001), examining the business of condoms, used Post Office archives and legal transcripts; Rose Holz (1999), bypassing the official files of the American Birth Control League, documented the lively commercial life of condoms and other “bootlegged” birth control products in Sears catalogs, department store window displays, and the files of such commercial enterprises as Lanteen Labs in Chicago. For this essay, I primarily examined issues of American Druggist, the Youngs Rubber v. C.I. Lee court transcript, Youngs’ contemporaneous advertisements and commentaries in drug trade journals, secondary sources, and historical artifacts in my collection. An invaluable source for my larger work on condoms (in progress) is the Woodward Archive at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a collection of ads from roughly 1880 to 1980 on an astounding number of U.S. products organized by product type and year.

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Acknowledgments

Thanks for contributions, past and recent, to Lisa Cartwright, Steven Doran, Anne Eckman, Alice Filmer, Kelly Gates, Rose Holz, Kirsten Lenz, Carol McCann, Cary Nelson, Tom O’Guinn, Monika Pietrzak-Franger, Leslie Reagan, Lisa Romero, Linda Scott, Martha Stoddard-Holmes, and Andrea Tone.

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Correspondence to Paula A. Treichler.

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Treichler, P.A. “When Pirates Feast … Who Pays?” Condoms, Advertising, and the Visibility Paradox, 1920s and 1930s. Bioethical Inquiry 11, 479–505 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-014-9583-7

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Keywords

  • History of condoms
  • Trojan Brand condoms
  • Youngs Rubber Corp.
  • Advertising
  • Visibility
  • Trade piracy
  • Trademark law
  • Dual protection