“If Only We Knew Something…” The Nineteenth Century Beginnings of Birth Control Advocacy
In 1839, ads began appearing in New York papers advertising “Female Pills,” which claimed to be an “infallible regulator of ******.” This medicine-also advertised as “French Lunar Pills,” or “Tablets for the Relief of Female Complaint”-was understood as something that would cause a miscarriage. The enormous popularity of such “remedies” was one of the first signs that birth control was widely desired by couples seeking to limit the size of their family, eagerly sought by women who did not wish to become or stay pregnant.
Ann Lohman, and her husband, Charles, were among the earliest purveyors of these concoctions, compounded of substances like tansy oil, ergot, opium, Spanish fly, and even turpentine. They posed extraordinary hazards to women’s health, but often had the desired effect, and sold in such quantities that the Lohmans built a Fifth Avenue mansion on the profits. If the pills didn’t work, Ann Lohman, also known as Madame Restell, also performed abortions. She was so notorious that “Restellism” was once a common euphemism for abortion.
During forty years as midwife and “females” physician, Lohman was arrested several times. She attracted sensational headlines, and went to prison on misdemeanor charges. Though no patient was ever proven to have died or suffered injury at her hands, she was known as a “Hag of Misery,” called “evil,” “thug,” and “strangler.” While it is clear that she may have been as motivated by profit as she was by mercy and politics, her advertisements were often the first and only information women had about birth control. She ran a lying-in hospital, and helped put infants up for adoption. She occasionally held informational talks for women in her parlor.
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