Durex is the world’s best-selling condom brand. The history of the term may remain obscure but, over time, condoms have been given interesting euphemistic names such as Johnnies, French letters (purses, ticklers), English raincoats, and a range of slang words that fill page after page of the Urban Dictionary. Such exotic references obscure the fact that the first branded sheaths came from Germany. The initial promotion of condoms was a matter of the military. The German army was the first to encourage its use among soldiers, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. German manufacturers would become the main producers of condoms and exported their products to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the rest of Europe. World War I interrupted the trade, but even its continuation elsewhere had a German dimension. Julius Schmidt was born on 17 March 1865 in Schondorf and moved to New York in 1882, changing his name to Schmid. He founded Schmid Laboratories in New Jersey in 1883 and later became the main supplier of condoms to the European Allies. By the early 1920s, however, most of Europe’s condoms were once again made in Germany.
Syphilis was the urban scourge of the late nineteenth century and yet a taboo subject. Ibsen’s treatment of the subject in his play Ghosts was judged to be shocking and indecent. It sparked an outcry of moral indignation. In London the play was performed by Jack Grein’s Independent Theatre at the Royalty Theatre, at no. 73 Dean Street, Soho, on 13 March 1891. More than 3,000 people applied for tickets, and the production became a cause célèbre. In the press it was considered to be repulsive, coarse, and vulgar (The Daily Telegraph referred to the play as an ‘open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly’), but amongst the audience were literary figures such as George Moore, Oscar Wilde, John Gray, and artists such as Charles Shannon and Reginald Savage – all of them standing in the vanguard in the battle against oppressive Victorian values and hypocrisy. The pressures of war swept all secrecy and concealment aside.
Family planning was one aspect of consideration in the debate about the use of condoms, but to the authorities the physical health of soldiers was a more urgent issue. During the First World War, venereal disease caused over 400,000 hospital admissions among British troops. Roughly five percent of all the men who enlisted in Britain’s armies became infected. In 1918, there were over 60,000 hospital admissions for VD in France and Flanders alone. By contrast, only some 74,000 cases of Trench Foot (caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, unsanitary, and cold conditions) were treated by Franco-Flemish hospitals during the whole of the war. Venereal patients required on average a month of intensive hospital treatment which caused a huge drain on the army’s resources. It was not until 1905 that the causative organism was first identified which led to more effective forms of treatment. Until the advent of penicillin in 1943, ‘cures’ for syphilis were based on the use of heavy metals such as mercury or, as the saying goes, ‘a night in the arms of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury’. Safe sex and sexual wellbeing were burning issues at the time.
Jewish Law has traditionally opposed the practice of birth control. The first mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah is to ‘be fertile and increase’. Condoms are unacceptable, because they block the passage of semen. That did not stop Jewish merchants from getting involved in the profitable rubber trade. Chemist Julius [Israel] Fromm, born on 4 March 1883, was an immigrant of Polish-Jewish descent into Germany. He invented the process for making condoms of liquefied rubber. Launched shortly after the First World War in Berlin, so-called ‘Fromms’ (synonym for condom) came to dominate the market. Mass production started in 1922; his invention of the condom vending machine followed later. Crown on the Condom Empire was his commission in 1930 of a flagship factory designed by avant-garde architects Arthur Korn and Siegfried Weitzman in the Berlin suburb of Köpenick – condoms in the style of Neue Sachlichkeit. In 1938, on the grounds that his supplies of rubber were needed for the war effort, Fromm was forced to sell his business at a fraction of its value to Baroness Elisabeth von Epenstein, Hermann Göring’s godmother. Fromm ended his productive life as a religious refugee in Hampstead Gardens Suburb where he died days after the collapse of the Reich.
Hairdresser and tobacconist Siegmund Jacoby was born around 1835 in Berlin into a Jewish family. He married Henrietta [Jetta] Meyers and the couple moved to London at some time in the 1860s. His son Daniel followed him in the same profession. A year after the death of his father in September 1885, Daniel and four others were charged with violent robbery at the Euston Road business of the elderly Jewish diamond merchant Julius Tabak. He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. He was released and, a reformed character, set out to build a career and start a family. The 1891 census shows him living at no. 95 High Street, St Pancras. His son Lionel Alfred Jacoby was born in 1894, and he too took up the same line of work. In 1915, having his name changed to Lionel Alfred Jackson, he founded the London Rubber Company, selling condoms and barber supplies that were imported from Germany and America. He operated the firm from his father’s hairdresser and tobacconist shop. By 1920, he had opened a shop at no. 3 Mincing Lane and a wholesale surgical rubber business at no. 183 Aldersgate Street. There is some irony in the name of the first location: it is a corruption of Mynchen Lane, so-called from the tenements held there by the Benedictine ‘mynchens’ (nuns) of the nearby St Helen’s Bishopsgate church.
Why a barber/tobacconist? Condoms could be openly marketed as birth control devices in Britain, but there were social factors that inhibited sales. Condoms were available at local chemists that usually had female shop assistants. Many men were embarrassed by asking a young woman for a packet of condoms and bought them at the barber shop. They were generally requested with the euphemism ‘a little something for the weekend’. Boots, the largest pharmacy chain in Britain, stopped selling condoms altogether in the 1920s, a policy that was not reversed until the 1960s. Business was brisk, in spite of opposition to the product – and there were some prominent critics of condoms. Moralists rejected all methods of contraception. At the 1920 Lambeth Conference the Church of England condemned ‘unnatural means of conception avoidance’. The Bishop of London complained of pollution, because of the huge number of condoms discarded in alleyways and parks, especially after weekends and holidays. Feminists resisted all ‘male-controlled’ contraceptives. Freud disapproved of birth control methods on the grounds that failure rates were high and that their use diminished sexual pleasure. Concerned about falling birth rates after the First World War, the French government outlawed all contraceptives, including condoms. Contraception was also illegal in Spain and Ireland. European militaries nevertheless continued to provide condoms to their members for disease protection, even in countries where they were illegal for the general population.
Jackson was greatly helped by the 1930 Church of England ruling that birth control could be used by married couples. London Rubber’s first latex condom for sale in Britain was an export from the American Youngs Rubber Company in 1929. By 1932, London Rubber had become Europe’s first manufacturer of such condoms using the latest liquid latex dipping technology. These were made at their factory in Shore Road, Hackney, and branded Durex. The name was formed from the first two letters of the words DUrability, REliability, and EXcellence. Lionel Jackson died in 1934 and his brother Elkan (born: Maurice Elkan Jacoby) became Managing Director of the company. In 1937 the London Rubber Company moved to Chingford. At this time the company had about fifty percent of the British condom market. With the outbreak of World War II, it became impossible to acquire condoms from Germany. London Rubber Company expanded at enormous pace to meet the high demand for Durex condoms that were issued by the government to British servicemen. In 1968, the company was the largest manufacturer of dipped rubber goods (balloons, rubber gloves, paint brushes, surgical footwear, toothbrushes, soaps, and other products) in the world, employing over 2,000 people. In 2007 its last remaining condom factory was closed and production moved to China, India and Thailand. From the East End to the Far East – Durex has stretched itself from one end of the globe to the other.