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1 Much has been written about the unique features of France’s demographic transition, and the role of factors contributing to the country’s early decline in fertility is often debated. Yet some ways of limiting births may have been underestimated in favour of others, such as the practice of withdrawal. This article shows, using period texts, how the spread of cosmetic products in the 18th century— specifically, astringents used for sexual purposes—provided women with contraceptive options, leading to a silent revolution, unspeakable and so far neglected: that of women’s control over fertility.

2 While opinions differ on specific regional timings, it is generally agreed that France’s fertility transition preceded the rest of Europe by almost a century, commencing in the late 18th century (Weir, 1984; Cummins, 2013). Although earlier European evidence exists for pockets of urban and aristocratic fertility declines (Livi Bacci, 2017), it was not until the late 18th century in France that a country was to experience the onset of sustained and irreversible fertility decline. The reasons for France’s precocious transition have not been unequivocally resolved. Several theories have been explored, ranging from the diffusion of new ideals and contraceptive innovation to an adaptation to broader social and economic shifts.

3 This article revisits the role of rudimentary spermicides made from alum, vinegar, wine, and other astringents in France’s fertility transition. Due to the limited and qualitative nature of the evidence, it cannot conclude whether these were more prevalent than other methods, but instead proposes they have been understated and that their innovation and diffusion were crucial to France’s fertility transition. Even if such intravaginal methods were widely used, could they kill or sufficiently disable sperm to effect such dramatic fertility decline? While today’s medically approved spermicides are less effective than methods like the contraceptive pill and condoms, interwar 20th-century doctors did demonstrate the spermicidal properties of various astringents. In 1934, the US National Committee for Maternal Health funded research into the reliability of existing birth control to find cheap and effective contraceptives for the masses. Its founder Dickinson (1936) showed a 1:800 alum dilution inhibited sperm motility, and 4 tablespoons of vinegar per quart of water (equivalent to nearly 4% dilution) were effective spermicides. With no alternative birth control in 18th-century France, regulations, or safety advice on astringents and declines in fertility, which indicated a profound desire to reduce family size, women may have been using much stronger solutions to maximize reliability.

4 I first trace the innovation and diffusion of cosmetic vaginal astringents for their striking resemblance, in both method of application and (alum- and alcohol-based) ingredients, to later 19th-century intravaginal birth control. Initially appearing as gynaecological treatments in 16th-century medical treatises, independent use of astringents to tighten the vaginal tract after childbirth or feign virginity and conceal pre- or extramarital sexual relations is first indicated in 17th-century French aristocracy. Considering the burgeoning cosmetics market in 18th-century France, and specifically entrepreneur vinegar maker Claude Maille, I argue that such astringents were commercialized and became widely normalized as a beautification aid. Drawing on the work of Martin (2009) and Roche (1981), I show how France’s consumer revolution and domestic production of wine and vinegar made cosmetic astringents financially accessible to the masses. That the commercialization and democratization of cosmetic vaginal astringents coincided with France’s fertility transition begs the question of whether these were also widely used as contraception.

5 Could this enlightenment have occurred on a broad enough scale to help shape France’s fertility transition? A revisiting of Rousseau’s (1764) ‘cheating nature’ passage will argue that as early as the 1750s, it was known cosmetic astringents could impede conception. Drawing upon Darnton (1996), I show how a clandestine market in pornographic novels publicized intravaginal birth control. However, for contraceptive astringents to significantly influence the fertility decline, their adoption by at least some of the vast rural peasantry was also required. Therefore, the article considers whether the heterogeneity of France’s transition lends itself well to spermicidal astringents playing a greater part than previously ascribed. Weir’s (1984) and Cummins’ (2013) conclusions that the earliest rural fertility control adopters were economically active landowners may suggest an urban-to-rural dissemination of spermicidal knowledge. To detect whether upper echelons of the rural peasantry could have been using these rudimentary methods by the close of the 18th century, cryptic references—Moheau’s ‘fatal secrets’ and English social reformer Jeremy Bentham’s ‘riddle’—will be revisited to propose these were referring to the roots of spermicidal contraception.

6 Such innovation, combined with an appearance-led consumer revolution, might have facilitated individualism, leading women to question their traditional role as mothers. Increasing power as consumers and producers may have empowered women to act upon existing motivations to control births in what became a silent fertility revolution.

I – Background

1 – France’s precocious fertility transition: the current state of debate

7 In the latter 19th century, Europe underwent a dramatic societal transformation, whereby families began to have fewer children. By 1800, marital fertility in France had already been declining in entire regions, leading to a measurable drop in the national birth rate, and it continued to decline steadily throughout the 19th century (Coale and Watkins, 2017). While pockets of marital fertility decline had occurred elsewhere—for instance, among the British peerage and Milanese aristocracy in the 18th century (Livi Bacci, 2017)—such countries did not experience sustained and nationwide decline until the latter 19th century. Princeton’s European Fertility Project (EFP) of the 1960s and 1970s set out to characterize Europe’s declining birth rates, concluding that adaptation to social and economic forces played a lesser role than diffusion of new ideals or methods (Coale and Watkins, 2017). More recently, this view that the fertility transition was an ideational change has been challenged in favour of social and economic forces. Brown and Guinnane (2007) point to some statistical limitations with the EFP data, firstly that the subdistricts were too large and heterogeneous to represent distinct fertility regimes and, secondly, that the socio-economic data collected were not the most relevant to parents’ fertility decisions. Given France’s uniquely early fertility transition, the drivers of the country’s shift have been much debated but never conclusively resolved. Several studies suggest the urban aristocracy were the earliest birth controllers. For instance, Livi Bacci (2017) showed how fertility control in Rouen had been almost certainly practised nearly a century before the rest of Normandy. Evidence also suggests some rural areas with greater links to urban industry (Ackerman, 1977; Bardet, 1995) were earlier birth control adopters. The challenge is establishing if this is a response to economic development or due to diffusion of urban ideals or techniques.

8 Weir (1984) and Cummins (2013) revisited INED family reconstitution data (Henry, 1972, 1978; Henry and Houdaille, 1973; Houdaille, 1976) to elucidate causes of France’s early fertility transition. Both question existing economic theories on the basis that other countries like England had a higher GDP per capita, smaller agrarian sector, and larger urbanization rate but underwent their fertility decline a century later (Weir, 1984; Cummins, 2013). Weir (1984) found that although evidence on fertility rates by social class is scarce, decline appears to be driven by an ascendant ‘bourgeois’ class of landowners in regions with more extensive capitalist links in land, labour, and product markets. He surmised that the failure of the French Revolution to achieve a fully egalitarian democracy created a labour force that released wealthier peasants from dependence on family labour. For this new rural bourgeoisie, children became redundant as labourers and costly as consumers. Cummins (2013) concurred that higher socio-economic rural groups were first to control births but disagreed with Weir’s explanation as the costliness of children was not specific to France. He argued that because rural landowners were more widespread than in other countries and inequality was declining, the environment for social mobility was more fluid than in other countries. Weir also suggested a diffusion of ideals and wealthier peasants’ contact with urban groups, some of whom were already controlling fertility, serving to ‘reinforce the appropriateness of contraception to their new role in society’ (p. 614). González-Bailón and Murphy (2013) pointed towards the persistent and geographical heterogeneity of France’s fertility transition—well into the 19th century—to suggest diffusion could have been at play. Casting doubt on contraceptive innovation as the cause, they proposed that the notion of fertility control and preference for smaller families were more likely to be what was diffusing, arguing that due to conservatism these would spread more slowly than a new technology.

2 – Re-examining the role of vaginal astringents in France’s fertility transition

9 Given the Church’s and State’s moral condemnation of intercourse for reasons other than procreation, references to birth control are rare and ambiguous in 18th-century France. In the 1750s, philosopher Rousseau (1764) cryptically alluded to techniques ‘to prevent the birth of human beings and to cheat nature’ (p. 225). Similarly, in a frequently cited passage in French population history, demographer Moheau (1778) observed that ‘fatal secrets unknown to any animal but man … have even penetrated in the countryside: nature gets cheated even in the villages’ (p. 102). ‘Cheating nature’ has previously been interpreted as a reference to the withdrawal method, often assumed to be the most widely used technique in the fertility transition (van de Walle and Muhsam, 1995). Rousseau’s and Moheau’s accounts of ‘cheating nature’ cannot be referring to mass-produced contraceptives like condoms, spermicidal douches, and barrier methods, which were unavailable to the masses until well into the 19th century. Previous critics have not explored in detail if Rousseau and Moheau might be referring to rudimentary spermicides inserted by sponge or syringe due to the lack of evidence of their use, especially among the peasantry. However, does this silence genuinely signify a lack of use, or rather that women, their primary users, were not empowered to discuss them openly? Théré (1999) explored the population decline literature of 21 elite 18th-century women who, except for breastfeeding, are mute on contraceptive methods. In an era where references to sex and procreation were censored, male demographers and philosophers might make veiled references to birth control methods, but female authors, already facing gender discrimination in their field, would not have been free to do the same (Théré, 1999).

II – Innovation and diffusion of cosmetic vaginal astringents

1 – The European roots of medical vaginal astringents

10 Vaginal astringents first appear in 16th-century medical treatises addressed to doctors, as gynaecological treatments for uterine haemorrhages, discharges referred to as ‘fleures blanches’ (literally, ‘white flowers’), and irregular menses. Astringent prescriptions to prevent pregnancy are notably absent despite having been known to the ancient world. For instance, a 1598 Latin translation of 1st-century Greek physician Dioscorides’ Materia Medica prescribed alum ‘laid at the mouth of the womb before sexual intercourse’ to prevent conception (Dioscorides, 1598, p. 598). Dissemination of this birth control knowledge was hindered by a lack of vernacular translations or publicity from the medical establishment. Although not positioned as such, one application of early modern vaginal astringents has distinct parallels with this ancient intravaginal contraception. European medical treatises outlined their use in tightening the vagina after intercourse or if damaged in childbirth (Liébault, 1582; Paré, 1628). Liébault prescribes pessaries or sponges impregnated with alum mixed in wine or vinegar to be inserted into the vagina. His advice was repeated in 1609 and later reprints, and similar formulas feature in posthumous editions of Les Œuvres d’Ambroise Paré spanning the 17th century (Paré, 1664). Even if not initially used as contraception, their use in medicine at least facilitated cultural acceptance of their independent use. Seventeenth-century surgeon Mauriceau described a pessary remedy for a fallen uterus but explains that some women prefer to use a sponge, even though he recommends against it (Mauriceau, 1675). [1] The parallels here with masturbation, condemned by the Church, meant surely that any moral sensibilities to using such intimate products had to be first overcome before women could even begin to accept and reclaim them as birth control methods.

2 – Cosmeticism initiates cultural acceptance of vaginal astringents

11 The Church had traditionally condemned cosmetics, warning women away from the sin that disfigured natural beauty and encouraged vanity, or perceiving it as a tool by the devil for women to deceive men (Martin, 2009). While such critiques continued, Early Modern Europe experienced a growing appreciation for and defence of cosmetics. In Natural Magick, Porta (1658) justified their use by arguing they are not a sexual luxury but necessities in ensuring procreation as ordained by God; women must remain appealing to their spouses to ensure they remain faithful. Led by monarchies that revered perfume, cosmetics, and fashion, an aristocratic beauty culture was emerging in France. Brantôme (1666), in his 16th-century anecdotes about the amorous lives of the French nobility, reports on French ladies increasingly mimicking and even surpassing their Spanish and Italian neighbours’ use of perfumes and fashion. Under the patronage of Louis XIV, 17th-century France took the lead in perfumery and fashion. The emergence of la toilette, where partially made-up elite women beautified themselves before an audience, was a form of social coquetry that endorsed the use of cosmetics (DeJean, 2007).

12 In this aristocratic culture, even the appearance of intimate body parts was questioned, with Brantôme recounting 30 physical attributes that defined feminine beauty, among which a body part described as ‘narrow: mouth (one and the other)’ (Brantôme, 1666, p. 266). Astringents used to tighten the vaginal tract shifted from medicine into a cosmetic product intended to attain stereotypical feminine beauty and gratify males. In amongst chapters on how to beautify the face, hair, and body, Porta (1658) advised the use of alum, vinegar, and wine-based astringents after childbirth lest husbands ‘may not abhor the women’ (p. 252) and refers to their use by prostitutes to feign virginity. In his notorious sexology manual, Tableau de l’amour conjugal, physician Venette (1688) recommended intimate use of vinegar vapour or other astringent ointments to naturally wide women to render them agreeable to their husbands, thus broadening the intended audience for astringents. Gradual normalization of these products was predicated on convincing women of both the inadequacy of their bodies and the need to placate jealous husbands who suspected promiscuity. Yet a dichotomy was emerging between this male desire for virginal-like genitalia and a fear that such products empowered women to deceive men about their sexual history or extramarital affairs (see Poulon, 1714).

13 Although limited, evidence from the latter 17th century exists for the use and growing acceptance of cosmetic vaginal astringents among French aristocrats. The trial of Monsieur de Gesvres made headlines in the judicial chronicle Recueil General, which detailed his wife’s divorce petition on the grounds he had not consummated the marriage. The Court examined if Madame de Gesvres had feigned virginity using astringents, and stated ‘the Physicians and Canonists agree there are a great many made-Virginities … They bring a hundred examples of this’ before referencing several cases (Poulon, 1714, p. 289). In his memoirs, Count de Rochefort (1689) inferred aristocratic women used these independently of physicians or midwives. He recalled finding a pot of pomade in the toilette possessions of one of the Queen’s maids of honour, which he applied to his chapped lips. Describing an immediate burning sensation, his mouth contracted and he struggled to speak. Confiding in an acquaintance, Rochefort is mocked at court and told at his age he should know about such pomades for ladies that are certainly not for the hands and hair, but a little rarer. He later considered suggesting their use to a female acquaintance due to be married and who may want to conceal previous sexual indiscretions.

14 Parisian aristocrat Madame de Sévigné also indicated a tentative cultural acceptance of vaginal astringents. Her daughter, after her wedding, relocated to Provence, following which, correspondence between mother and daughter spanned more than 2 decades. Following the birth of her daughter’s first son, de Sévigné (1862) asked, ‘What, they have not heard of astringents in Provence? What do the poor husbands do?’ (18 Dec. 1671, p. 437). The context of this cryptic text is lost, so its meaning can only be surmised, although her concern for husbands might suggest post-childbirth astringents to tone vaginal tissue and meet male-imposed standards of beauty. Her astonishment at the lack of astringents in Provence indicates their more popular use in her home city of Paris. She follows with ‘What do the poor…do? I cannot imagine that there are any in Provence’ (18 Dec. 1671, p. 437), possibly asking what the poor prostitutes do without cosmetic astringents to tone their vagina. Regnier (1626) verified astringent use in the 17th-century Parisian sex trade, claiming to find alum, a syringe, and a sponge in a prostitute’s room. Ariès (1954) interpreted this cryptic note as a reference to the lack of contraceptive astringents in Provence. However, if this were the case, since de Sévigné’s letters illustrate an ongoing anxiety over the effects of childbearing on her daughter’s health and beauty, we might expect her to refer to the detrimental effect on her, and not the ‘poor husbands’. Her letters also indicate a culture of male-led fertility control, suggesting she is unaware of intravaginal birth control methods. Her daughter’s ability to space pregnancies seems largely dependent on her sonin-law Grignan’s sexual demands (see de Sévigné, 1862, 12 July 1671; 1 Nov. 1671; 18 Dec. 1671), and on occasion, she even appeals directly to Grignan to spare her daughter’s health (de Sévigné, 1862, 18 Oct. 1671). If cosmetic astringents were not yet widely realized as contraceptives, the Gesvres trial and de Sévigné’s and Rochefort’s accounts at least demonstrate diffusion of their knowledge, crucial for normalizing intravaginal remedies.

3 – Commercializing vaginal astringents: ‘C’est le secret du vinaigrier’

15 The custom of using vaginal astringents as cosmetics continued through the 18th century. In the second edition of the revered beauty treatise, Abdeker, ou l’art de conserver la beauté, translated from a medieval Arabic manuscript, Le Camus (1754a) described only in Latin an over-dilated vagina caused by early or frequent intercourse, then detailed in French a remedy of alum or other astringent drugs steeped in wine or vinegar. He added that several readers of the first edition had asked many times for an explanation of the Latin text, and ‘to satisfy their curiosity’ he referred to the Rétrécisseuse entry in the Dictionary of Trévoux, which describes vaginal astringents, and recounted Rochefort’s story of astringent pomade (Giffart, 1752, p. 2050). Despite his allusiveness, in referencing Trévoux, Le Camus marks a crucial step towards the democratization of vaginal astringents in latter 18th-century France. [2]

16 While French self-help manuals remained popular, the latter 18th century witnessed an increasingly commercialized beauty market which began to displace homemade recipes (see Martin, 2009). Under the French guild system, a number of vinegar makers, perfumers, mercers, and wigmakers manufactured and sold a wide range of face and body cosmetics. Wine and its derivatives, including brandy and vinegar, became increasingly popular cosmetic and perfume ingredients facilitated by a new vogue for ‘odoriferous spirits’ and ‘scented waters’ replacing heavier oil-based scents (Martin, 2009). France’s climate enabled mass cultivation of wine alcohols and floral essences that were the backbone of the cosmetics and perfumery markets. [3] Meanwhile, the city of Orleans was emerging as the world’s leading vinegar producer, with the number of vinaigriers (vinegar makers) increasing from around 200 in 1730 to 300 on the eve of the French Revolution in 1789 (Smith, 2019). [4] It was arguably such domestic production that would increase accessibility and broaden the social reach of cosmetic vaginal astringents.

17 In latter 18th-century France, Maille pioneered commercialization of vaginal astringents. By 1769, his career in premium vinegar and mustard dressings, and luxury cosmetic vinegars for face and body, earned him the title of ‘Vinaigrier du Roi’ (King’s Vinegar Maker). Some of his vinegars were used to constrict the vaginal tract to placate suspicious husbands, leading Mercier (1783) to describe Maille as ‘dear to the ladies … [who] have in the heart a little feeling of gratitude’ (p. 43). Initially, their price was accessible only to aristocratic women; Venus pour des Dames, for instance, launched in the 1750s, sold for 96 livres per bottle (Mercure de France, 1753). [5] Shortly after, Maille introduced a more affordable Courier de Cythère, priced at 8 livres, although early advertising suggests this was a drinking liqueur (L’Avantcoureur, 1762). By the 1780s at least, it is clear both brands were used cosmetically to tone the vagina (see Chambon de Montaux, 1785). At odds with the fashion for cosmetic astringents was a growing concern among physicians about their risks to genital health, with Portal (1770) asserting that resulting illnesses confirm ‘this sad catastrophe was only too common in this city [Paris]’ (p. 359). Despite this, the trend was unabated. In the 19th century, Prudhomme (1815) hailed Maille’s celebrity status, confirming his vinegars continued to be an essential part of some women’s toilette. Their commercialization was complete.

4 – The consumer revolution and democratized cosmetics

18 To assess if astringents were used as birth control to the extent they shaped the fertility transition, it must first be understood if the 18th-century masses participated in France’s consumer market and had access to such products. Vinegar makers, as other trade guilds, were strictly regulated, each overseen by a council which supervised the price and quality of goods, limited the number of masters, and gave them exclusivity to make and sell products. Such guild restrictions may have threatened to inhibit production, inflate prices, and hinder mass consumerism; however, Fairchilds (1994) illustrated how these were circumvented by various legal and illegal channels. Products were marketed and sold more widely than ever before, with shops, street and door-to-door sellers, markets, and fairs all vying for custom. Coquery (2016) detailed how the rise of shops accelerated trade and consumption for their broad range of products, pricing, and new advertising methods such as decorative shopfronts and trade cards. The development of Parisian and provincial advertising periodicals, the affiches, reached a broad social spectrum (see Martin, 2009). Using probate inventories of the deceased, Fairchilds (1994) traced an 18th-century consumption of imitation luxury goods among the Parisian lower and lower-middle classes, arguing that a consumer revolution occurred in 18th-century France and that demand for such ‘populuxe’ goods may have been unique.

19 Martin (2009) explored how any single guild had failed to claim a monopoly on cosmetics; due to continuous innovation, they could be legally made and sold by any artisan or independent producer, and their low cost compared to other luxury goods broadened their customer base. Growing ownership of toilet mirrors in the working classes, as seen in inventories, indicates the breadth of beauty consumerism (Roche, 1981). Similarly, in exploring bankrupt perfumery accounts, Martin (2009) found a diversity of clients, including artisans and servants. Falling prices but also a reprioritization of ‘needs’ enabled working classes to partake in this consumer revolution, suggesting they did not forgo buying goods if prices were expensive but instead sacrificed household necessities such as kitchenware to buy mirrors, dresses, and cosmetics (Roche, 1981). Mercier (1783) suggested cosmetic vaginal astringents were an integral part of an urban beauty market, claiming ‘O Paris, you contain all that art can create more attractive and more useful, and the beauty who wants to parry and preserve her charms buys in the same morning an elegant cap and repairing vinegar’ (p. 43). While the poor could not afford Maille’s virgin vinegars (Martin, 2009), they may have consumed imitation products. Roche (1981) showed that the number of Parisian wage earners and servants who owned syringes had increased significantly from the start to the end of the 18th century. He suggested they may have been an instrument of feminine hygiene, drawing on Restif de la Bretonne’s account of a chambermaid who placed bowl, sponge, and syringe into her courtesan employer’s cabinet. Employer and servant interactions brought social classes together on an unprecedented scale as significant numbers of rural inhabitants migrated to towns for employment (see Blum, 2002). In theory, servants’ proximity to their employers enabled emulation of cosmetic habits, including astringent use.

20 Even rural peasantry forged urban links, fulfilling their escalating demand for items such as fabrics, wine, and vinegar, and consuming them. Roche (1997) explained how improvements in road building, the postal service, and distribution of the press brought rural peasants into contact with urban areas and amassed rural access to information. He indicated from the 1750s the same revolution in design of clothing in town and country, particularly for richer rural peasants. Unfortunately, evidence for rural use of cosmetics and vaginal astringents is scarce, although from his early days it had been Maille’s intention to sell to the provinces (Mercure de France, 1753). By the turn of the century, Rozier (1796) remarked that, due to Maille’s ‘celebrity’ status and ‘genius’, the secrets of vinegar making had become better known and cosmetic vinegars had ‘passed to the ends of two worlds’, used in the toilette of ladies of all classes (p. 378). Although better-off rural peasants’ purchasing was not as extensive as that of the urban working classes, they were emerging as a receptive consumer market in the late 18th century.

III – Cosmetic vaginal astringents and France’s fertility transition

1 – Vaginal astringents: from cosmetic to contraceptive?

21 The emerging popularity of vaginal astringents coinciding with France’s late 18th-century fertility transition begs the question of whether they had already been reclaimed as contraception. A rereading of Rousseau’s ‘How Many Shameful Ways There Are To Prevent the Birth of Men and To Cheat Nature’ from the Discourse on Inequality (1764, p. 225) may indicate appropriation of astringents as birth control as early as the 1750s. Here he explicitly stated abortion and infanticide but also referred more vaguely to ‘brutal and depraved tastes that insult [nature’s] most charming work, tastes that neither savages nor animals ever knew and that have arisen in civilized countries only from a corrupt imagination’ (pp. 225–226). Van de Walle and Muhsam (1995) interpreted this as heterosexual anal intercourse because other techniques arguably do not neatly fit the description of a sexual ‘taste’ (p. 265).

22 Could Rousseau also have had in mind the fashion for tight genitalia as a ‘taste’ capable of undermining procreation? His final explanation for declining fertility suggests so:


… by the mutilation of the unfortunates who have a portion of their existence and their entire posterity sacrificed to vain songs, or, worse still, to the brutal jealousy of a few men: A mutilation which, in this last case, doubly outrages nature, in the treatment inflicted on those who suffer it, and in the use to which they are intended.
(Rousseau, 1764, p. 203)

24 The beginning of this quote refers to castration of male opera singers to preserve their high pitch (see also Rousseau’s lengthier 1768 discussion, p. 75). His following ‘worse still’ indicates a second form of ‘mutilation’, caused by the ‘brutal jealousy of a few men’ (Rousseau, 1764, p. 203). Is this the same jealousy Venette (1688) referred to in newly wed husbands who may suspect their wives of lost virginity if their genitalia are deemed too wide? Mercier’s (1788) claim that Maille vinegars united spouses and eliminated any suspicions of the bride having had premarital intercourse suggests Rousseau is referring to cosmetic vaginal astringents. Physician Chambon de Montaux’s (1785) account of astringents causing cracked, hardened, and dried vessels leading to pain and risk of tearing during intercourse certainly evokes images of bodily mutilation: Rousseau’s ‘treatment inflicted on those who suffer it’. Rousseau’s ‘use to which they are intended’ could refer to constricting the female genitalia to appease husbands, which would outrage nature in its threat to procreation. This theory is substantiated by Chambon de Montaux’s caution that astringents, by tightening the vaginal tract, are an obstacle to conception. With significant time for such products to establish a broad and repeat customer base, given the sexual nature of their use, it is plausible that their contraceptive potential was realized on a wider scale and that they became synonymous with birth control.

2 – Contraceptive astringent publicity and promotion: ‘livres philosophiques’

25 While this article has explored how the consumer revolution may have contributed to the dissemination of cosmetic astringents, an understanding of whether and how such products, or at least their ingredients, transitioned to intravaginal birth control is also required. An illicit but popular 18th-century market in ‘livres philosophiques’ (literally, ‘philosophical books’) may have acted as a vital form of contraceptive publicity. Any books deemed a threat to the Church, State, or conventional morality were censored, and their authors and distributors risked imprisonment. In response, covert publication and distribution channels emerged all over France, through which pornographic and other censored novels were widely disseminated (Darton, 1996). The theme of sexual pleasure without consequence underlies many 18th-century erotic novels, and descriptions of birth control methods commonly feature. While such novels focus on pre- and extramarital sexual relations, and so may not accurately signify the extent of marital contraceptive use, they nonetheless served as a platform to publicize new ideals. Darnton (1996) observed how some read like a birth control instruction manual or treatise on contraception and even proposed that diffusion of this literary genre may have spread birth control information among the masses. In this sense, they might be regarded as forerunners to 19th-century birth control manuals.

26 Can this theory be extended to suggest that depictions of intravaginal birth control in these novels specifically influenced France’s fertility transition? Van de Walle and Muhsam (1995) explored examples of the withdrawal method in 18th-century novels, concluding its reliability was often questioned. In contrast, several 18th-century novels allude to female-led birth control methods, coinciding with the national fertility decline. In Les Liaisons dangereuses (first published in 1782), for instance, a female-led method is intimated but not explained, with Vicomte de Valmont exclaiming that he has taught his lover everything except the ‘precautions’ (Laclos, 1784, p. 93). Le Rideau levé (1786) traces the sexual education of heroine Laure by her stepfather. When she doubts the effectiveness of withdrawal, he concurs and claims a more reliable sponge method makes it ‘impossible’ to conceive:


You wet this sponge in water mixed with a few drops of brandy; you insert it exactly over the mouth of the womb so as to block it; and even if the pervasive semen goes through the pores of the sponge, the extraneous liquid, mingling with it, destroys its power and essence …
(Mirabeau, 1786, n.p.)

28 This single most explicit description of spermicidal birth control in 18th-century France literally lifts the curtain on the brandy sponge method for any readers unaware of it. A clandestine review claims that Le Rideau levé stands out against other erotic novels for its portrayal of not only same-sex libertinism but also various accessories used to ‘heighten pleasure and prevent fatal consequences’ (Bachaumont, 1788, p. 137). If the reader is in any doubt about the intricacies of female-led methods, they are educated through the eye of Laure.

29 While less explicit than Le Rideau levé, other definite descriptions of intravaginal methods emerge during the French Revolution. Sade’s Justine (1791) mentions the existence of ‘certain sponges’ to prevent conception. La Philosophie dans le boudoir (Sade, 1795) goes further, with Madame de Saint-Ange educating the inexperienced heroine on how these are used. Sustained demand for Le Rideau levé is conveyed by its numerous editions: 1788, 1790, and circa 1800 (Gay, 1873). [6] While rural readership of pornographic novels cannot be quantified, Hunt (1993) argued that the space for erotic publications was much broader by the 1790s because obscenity was less of a concern to authorities than counter-revolutionary publications. An ascription note by librarian Louis Dubois, belonging to Léon de Sicotière, credits a Marquis de Sentilly (Gay, 1873), whose obscurity and rural location would imply contraceptive astringent knowledge had reached the provinces by the late 18th century. Disputed authorship of Le Rideau levé may even indicate rural readers had access to such erotic novels. However, Kearney (1982) suggested though this authorship is preferred by historian Pascal Pia, Mirabeau remains a key contender.

3 – ‘Fatal secrets’: contraceptive astringents reach 18th-century rural France?

30 Moheau’s famous phrase ‘nature gets cheated even in the villages’ suggests that birth control was used in late 18th-century rural France, but the specific methods to which it refers have been much debated. He infers a female-led method, stating ‘rich women for whom pleasure is the greatest interest and the only occupation are not the only ones who consider the propagation of the species as a dupery of olden times’ (Moheau, 1778, p. 102). Flandrin (1976) interpreted Moheau’s ‘fatal secrets’ to mean the withdrawal method, but I would argue this does not fit the description of a female-led nor ‘secret’ method. As early as the 16th century, Brantôme had explicitly referred to withdrawal in extramarital affairs (1666). Explicit references to this method are found in the erotic novel Thérèse Philosophe (1748), which despite censorship was a bestseller, undergoing 16 editions (Darnton, 1996). Even in England, where the fertility transition did not occur until much later, withdrawal was referenced in the notorious Onania (1723), a treatise on the dangers of masturbation, which underwent 22 editions throughout the 18th century. Moheau’s ‘secrets’ arguably evoke the later Le Rideau levé, where sponges soaked in brandy are described as ‘such secrets of a kind to chase away the natural shyness of many girls’, whereas withdrawal is not positioned as a secret method (Mirabeau, 1786, n.p.).

31 Flandrin (1976) interpreted Moheau’s ‘fatal secrets’ as a plagiarism of Christian moralists’ condemnation of withdrawal as a ‘hedonistic perversion’ resulting in ‘murderous’ non-procreation (p. 217). However, he acknowledged that Moheau denounces birth control solely for its dangers to the State and never mentions God or Christian virtues. Is it possible that Moheau used ‘fatal’ in its more literal sense? It could be taken to mean abortion or infanticide, but while these would have been executed covertly, their concept was not secret, both described by Moheau (1778) and Rousseau (1764). Alternatively, ‘fatal’ may allude to the action of spermicides, echoed in Le Rideau levé which explains that brandy impregnated in a vaginal sponge destroys the power and essence of the ‘seed’ (Mirabeau, 1786). Moheau’s description of ‘fatal secrets’ as ‘licentious usages’ and ‘homicidal tastes’ (1778, p. 102) is reminiscent of Rousseau’s ‘brutal and depraved tastes’ (1764, p. 203). Are they both alluding to cosmetic astringent usage to forge constricted virginal-like genitalia? Such ‘tastes’ might be regarded as ‘homicidal’ not only for their spermicidal action but also in the physical damage astringents may inflict on the female, which physician Portal (1770) claims have ‘given rise to illnesses which could become fatal’ (p. 359).

32 If contraceptive astringents had reached rural France, it seems unlikely they were used by all peasants at this early stage. The fertility transition was achieved by the actions of a few effective controllers (Weir, 1984; Binion, 2001). Weir’s (1984) and Cummins’ (2013) findings that rural fertility decline was driven by peasant landowners in regions with more extensive capitalist links in land, labour, and product markets could indicate urban-to-rural diffusion. Weir proposed a diffusion of ideals, in that their contact with urbanites helped to ‘reinforce the appropriateness of contraception to their new role in society’ (p. 614). Is it possible that knowledge of new contraceptive astringents was also diffusing? This ascendant rural class would be better placed than poorer peasants to absorb birth control knowledge from urban aristocrats, the bourgeoisie, and erotic literature. González-Bailón and Murphy (2013) cast doubt on innovation, claiming that such diffusion is expected to be relatively fast, thus at odds with the gradual and geographically heterogeneous fertility decline in France from the late 18th century onwards. They argued a preference for smaller families was more likely to be what was spreading (see Section I). I would argue this would not be the case with contraceptive astringents whose moral taboo hindered nationwide enlightenment. With no medical endorsement, few Libertine authors prepared to openly reference them, and the concept of birth control condemned by Church and State, it is probable that such products would only transition from cosmetic to contraceptive gradually.

4 – Eighteenth-century France: the roots of accessible contraception?

33 Over a century on from their transition, American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger travelled to France to uncover the knowledge and means enabling the rural peasantry to limit their families. In her resulting Family Limitation, she outlined chemical methods used by French peasant women, such as antiseptic vinegar douches or cotton plugs soaked in vinegar, and even described some making their own pessaries (Sanger, 1914). This begs the question of whether similar makeshift methods were already used in France’s 18th-century fertility transition, independently of the medical establishment. Astringents like brandy and vinegar were already widely available, and since the former’s appearance in pornographic literature and the latter’s use as a vaginal cosmetic coincided with France’s precocious fertility transition, it is plausible this enlightenment was beginning to reach the masses by the close of the 18th century.

34 English reformer Jeremy Bentham (1797) may indicate the use of astringents in France’s fertility transition. In ‘The Situation and Relief of the Poor’, he argues for better enumeration of English paupers, but in its midst, he introduces his ‘riddle’:


Rates are encroaching things. You, as well as another illustrious friend of mine, are, I think, for limiting them – Limit them? – Agreed – But how? – Not by a prohibitory act – a remedy which would neither be applied, nor if applied, be effectual – not by a dead letter, but by a living body; a body which, to stay the plague, would, like Phineas, throw itself into the gap; yet not, like Curtius, be swallowed up in it … My reverend friend, hurried away by the torrent of his own eloquence, drove beyond you, and let drop something about a spunge. I too have my spunge; but that a slow one, and not quite so rough a one [italics in original].
(p. 423)

36 Himes (1936), who uncovered this passage, believed that Bentham was recommending the vaginal sponge as accessible contraception for the English working class and that his ‘reverend friend’ was Joseph Townsend who, in visiting France, had opportunity to learn about such methods. Although this link is tenuous, Bentham’s confidence in this as a suitable method for English paupers might suggest he was aware of some pre-existing usage among the French peasantry.

37 Bentham puns on the rate of reproduction using the subject of the poor rates, which would decrease if reproduction was limited. He suggests this could be done not by a ‘dead letter’ (which Himes concluded is a condom) nor by an unenforceable law or ‘prohibitory act’ but by a ‘living body’, an erroneous term for a sponge alone. Sponges impregnated with spermicides such as vinegar, derived from wine, the ‘blood of Christ’, or brandy, termed eau de vie, both better fit the description of a ‘living body’. [7] ‘A body which, to stay the plague’ specifically implicates vinegar, a common plague preventative. A striking parallel can be found in the French gazette Le Mercure, which recommends vinegar infused with herbs, soaked in a sponge, and held against the nose to guard against the plague (‘Remède préservatif contre la peste’, 1721). Himes interpreted Bentham’s ‘I too have my spunge; but that a slow one, and not quite so rough a one’ as contraceptives being a ‘slow remedy for pauperism and public relief, but not such a strain on human nature than abstinence’ (Himes, 1936, p. 42). However, Bentham’s ‘not quite so rough’ sponge echoes Chambon de Montaux’s warning on the abrasive nature of astringents. Is Bentham suggesting the sponge alone as a physical barrier, or even impregnated instead with sloe gin, a popular spirit in 18th-century England? With all this in mind, Bentham’s reference to ‘staying a plague’ becomes arguably one of the earliest references to the roots of rudimentary spermicidal astringent use in Europe.

5 – Motivations to control fertility: cosmeticism and the empowered self

38 It is possible France’s consumer revolution did not just facilitate new methods but also enhanced motivations to control fertility. Its ‘culture of appearances’ (Roche, 1989) may have exacerbated a dichotomy between beauty and childbearing. Historians suggest an 18th-century repugnance towards the latter (for instance, Théré, 1999; Binion, 2001; Blum, 2002). Women were vilified for limiting childbearing to preserve their beauty (Poncet de la Grave, 1801), while authoress Puisieux (1761) bemoans nature for causing women to spend their ‘most beautiful years’ in pain (p. 9). Cosmetics in the latter 18th century transitioned from elaborate artifice to subtler make-up which claimed to accentuate natural and youthful beauty, while ostracizing ageing women (Martin, 2009). Puisieux (1761) laments the fading beauty of mature women and their lost appeal to men, irreversible even with lengthy toilette. In an urban culture where old age came in the 30s and ‘coquettes’ were ridiculed for attempting to conceal old age with paint and rouge (Martin, 2009), it is possible feminine repugnance with childbearing signalled a desire to preserve coveted youthful beauty.

39 It is too simplistic to suggest that a link between cosmeticism and fertility control was driven purely by women seeking to attain stereotypical beauty. Numerous motivations for delaying and spacing births have been explored, from economic pressures to maternal health, and these could vary widely across region, social class, and individual families. While it is beyond the scope of this article to investigate these, France’s beautification culture could have led some women to act on existing motivations. In a modern context, Rudd (1997) argued the symbolic meaning of women’s cosmetics use may lie in both the physical and social transformation of the self. Roche (1989) explored an 18th-century shift towards women owning significantly more items of clothing than men, and fashion transitioning from a demarcation of social classes to an expression of individual identity. This climate of individualism could have significant implications for women’s role as mothers. In the context of 18th-century America, Degler (1980) argued that once women universally became self-conscious about themselves as individuals and as beings separate from husband and family, an impetus to limit childbearing emerged. France’s consumer revolution provided an ideal environment for women to re-evaluate the ‘self’ and their traditional childbearing roles.

40 It is possible the consumer revolution also empowered women to control fertility. As the beauty market was increasingly feminized, women became crucial to the economic success of cosmetics, perfume, and fashion sellers. Women did not solely contribute as consumers. Crowston (2001), for instance, explored how the female-led seamstresses’ guild, the fourth largest in Paris, enabled its workers to build a large decentralized trade based on informal labour relations. Contributing to the national economy arguably gave women ideological means to negotiate power. Rudd (1997) explored how women, expected to conform to beauty ideals, use cosmetics to gain power and privilege in an attempt to overcome gendered disadvantages. This link between cosmetics and power was highly pertinent in 18th-century France’s burgeoning beauty market. A male fear of being duped by women using make-up to mask imperfections (see Martin, 2009) signalled the perceived threat of feminine control, as did the use of cosmetic vaginal astringents, condemned for ‘insulting humanity by deceiving the public faith’ (Portal, 1770, p. 359). This emancipation of women was becoming apparent within the home. Flandrin (1976) explored how ideological changes in conjugal living rebalanced power relations between husband and wife in the 18th century; men were less expected to be the autocratic controllers previously dictated by the Church, but to be more respectful of their wives. This extended to marital sexual relations, Flandrin arguing that declining fertility was a result of male acquiescence to demands from their wives to practise withdrawal. I would argue contraceptive astringents, which required no input or compliance from husbands yet still gratified their sexual needs, were essential to this ideological shift. Consumerism may have contributed to women’s changing roles, but this innovation put fertility control firmly in their hands.

Conclusion: the silent fertility revolution in 18th-century France

41 This article concludes that the contribution of rudimentary spermicides during France’s precocious fertility transition may have been understated due to the silence of their female users. Cosmetic vaginal astringents, for their striking similarities in mode of application and ingredients, have been examined as a forerunner to spermicidal birth control. Used to tone vaginal tissue after childbirth or ‘recreate’ virginity to placate suspicious husbands, their use first spread among the 17th-century aristocracy. Commercialization by 18th-century vinegar maker Maille marked a crucial step in the democratization of cosmetic astringents, despite a lack of explicit marketing. France’s consumer revolution broadened the appeal of cosmetics, and domestic production of wine, brandy, and vinegar astringents facilitated accessible pricing to the lower classes. While illicit cultural acceptance of this intravaginal remedy arguably advanced its appropriation as birth control, the knowledge it could be used in this way required diffusion.

42 Latter 18th-century pornographic novels, despite censorship, were a means to publicize intravaginal birth control. Le Rideau levé’s depiction of brandy-soaked sponges is revolutionary, not only by explicitly promoting a birth control method no others had ever done, but also by featuring an ingredient cheaply available to all. Though they cannot quantify the extent of use, Rousseau, Moheau, and Bentham’s writings all indicate 18th-century enlightenment on astringent fertility control. At this stage, rural fertility trends suggest birth control was mainly limited to the upper ranks of the French peasantry and those with greater urban industrial links. However, does Moheau’s (1778) proclamation ‘it is time to stop this secret and terrible cause of depopulation that stealthily undermines the nation; it might soon be too late to control it’ (p. 102) indicate a fear of the silent spread of spermicides? Although a number of birth control methods contributed to France’s fertility transition, few are so allusively referred to, implying a fear that even denouncement could result in further dissemination of this female-led method.

43 Did this fear stem from a resistance to emancipating women? Their reclamation of a method imposed upon them to fulfil male-defined standards of virginal beauty enabled women to redefine their role in society. A consumer revolution centred on appearances fostered a culture of individualism which could call into question their fundamental role as mothers. Their increasing contribution to the national economy, both as beauty and fashion consumers and producers, may have empowered women to act upon existing motivations to limit births. The fertility transition in 18th-century France, I would argue, was a silent revolution that enabled women to precede the medical establishment and lead the way globally in the march towards effective and accessible female-led contraception.


  • [1]
    This sponge reference is missing from the English translation by Chamberlen, who explains in ‘The Translator to the Reader’ that he has omitted ‘here and there a passage that might offend a chast English eye’ (Mauriceau, 1673, p. 311). These contrasting English and French editions suggest French women’s independent use of intravaginal remedies may have become culturally acceptable at an earlier stage.
  • [2]
    In contrast, Le Camus’ (1754b) English translation Abdeker, Or the Art of Preserving Beauty suggests a cultural reticence to even cryptically refer to vaginal astringents. This edition has no footnote explaining the Latin description of the vagina being widened by intercourse.
  • [3]
    Cultivation of floral essences had firmly established Grasse as perfume capital. Rozier (1796) discusses France’s supremacy in wine production, claiming ideal climate and soil conditions gave the country advantage over others like England. While studies generally agree that England industrialized before France (see Fairchilds, 1994), the latter’s domestic production of such ingredients created competitive advantage in the beauty market.
  • [4]
    England’s beer industry facilitated a market in malt vinegar; however, glutinous and more liable to spoiling, it was not as suitable for use in cosmetic or medical products as was wine vinegar (see Motherby, 1785, Acetum entry).
  • [5]
    Roche (1981) shows the average daily wage of a labourer in the 1750s was less than 1 livre.
  • [6]
    In contrast, in England, while erotic literature was too gaining popularity, it lacked the explicit depiction of intravaginal birth control techniques. Gay (1873) explained that the 1830 English translation, The Curtain Drawn Up, is very incomplete, while a later 1865 edition is more extensive but still contains various deletions.
  • [7]
    The ‘gap’ was a common 18th-century word for vagina. Curtius was a legendary hero of Rome. Legend states that in 362 BCE, a deep gulf opened in the forum which would never close until Rome’s most precious possession was thrown into it. To demonstrate his bravery, Curtius leapt into the chasm, and it promptly closed.

France led Europe’s fertility transition, preceding other countries by a century. Whether this 18th-century shift was driven by socio-economic forces or diffusion of new birth control methods or ideals has never been definitively concluded. This article considers if the contribution of rudimentary spermicides to France’s transition has been underestimated, arguing that they were subtly normalized and democratized under the guise of cosmetic vaginal astringents during France’s consumer revolution. That this occurred during the fertility transition begs the question of whether these astringents had become synonymous with birth control. The article shows how an illicit market in pornographic novels publicized intravaginal birth control to the masses. A re-evaluation of philosophical and demographic texts will suggest these astringents’ ability to impede fertility had been realized, even in rural areas. Such innovation combined with an appearance-led consumer revolution might have facilitated individualism and emancipated women from their traditional roles as mothers.

  • consumer revolution
  • cosmetics history
  • contraception
  • demographic history
  • 18th-century France
  • fertility transition
  • Moheau

« Funestes secrets » et révolution contraceptive silencieuse dans la France du xviiie siècle : « C’est le secret du vinaigrier »

La population française a été la première en Europe à effectuer sa transition de la fécondité, devançant les autres pays d’un siècle. On discerne encore mal à ce jour comment s’est opéré au xviiie siècle ce bouleversement : forces socioéconomiques, nouvelles méthodes de contrôle des naissances ou évolution des mentalités. Cet article étudie dans quelle mesure les spermicides rudimentaires ont contribué au changement de régime de fécondité en France, en montrant comment ils ont été normalisés et démocratisés sous forme de produits féminins intimes aux propriétés astringentes lors de la révolution de la consommation. Étant donné la correspondance entre l’utilisation de ces produits et la transition de la fécondité, on peut se demander si ces astringents étaient devenus de facto des moyens de contrôler les naissances. Cet article montre comment un marché clandestin de romans pornographiques a permis de diffuser des méthodes contraceptives intravaginales auprès des masses. Une réévaluation des textes philosophiques et démographiques suggère que ces astringents ont pu freiner la fécondité jusque dans les zones rurales. Cette innovation, associée à une révolution de la consommation centrée sur les apparences, a pu accompagner une montée de l’individualisme et émanciper les femmes par rapport à leur rôle traditionnel de mère.


« Funestes secrets» y revolución anticonceptiva silenciosa en la Francia del siglo XVIII ¿Es el secreto del vinagrero?

La población francesa fue la primera en Europa en efectuar su transición de la fecundidad, un siglo antes que los demás países. Hasta ahora ha sido difícil discernir cómo se ha operado en el siglo XVIII esta transformación: fuerzas socioeconómicas, nuevos métodos de control de la natalidad o cambios de mentalidad. Este artículo estudia en qué medida los espermicidas rudimentarios han contribuido al cambio de régimen de fecundidad en Francia, mostrando cómo se normalizaron y democratizaron en forma de productos femeninos íntimos con propiedades astringentes durante la revolución del consumo. Dada la correspondencia entre la utilización de estos productos y la transición de la fecundidad, cabe preguntarse si dichos astringentes se han convertido de hecho en medios de control de la natalidad. Este artículo muestra cómo un mercado clandestino de novelas pornográficas ha permitido difundir métodos anticonceptivos intravaginales en la población. Una reevaluación de los textos filosóficos y demográficos sugiere que estos astringentes han podido frenar la fecundidad incluso en las zonas rurales. Esta innovación, unida a una revolución del consumo centrada en las apariencias, ha podido acompañar un aumento del individualismo y emancipar a las mujeres respecto a su papel tradicional de madres.


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