Condoms, Pills and More: The Contraceptive Historian’s Playground

Guest Post by Jessica Borge

If you worked in the North American birth control industry in the latter half of the twentieth century, you would have likely encountered Percy Skuy’s museum of contraceptive curiosities. Percy was a marketing man for the Canadian arm of Ortho Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson dealing in contraceptives and gynaecological care. Percy would go on to become president of the company. He began amassing contraceptive devices in 1965, and the collection soon attracted interest from far and wide. It was the time that family planning was gradually becoming an acceptable topic for open discussion in North America, and Percy realized that his personal interest could be put to work as a valuable educative tool. After all, the acceptance of an abstract idea, such as family planning, is greatly aided by physical familiarity with the actual technologies that make it workable.

Mini Museum Reference ImageThe collection evolved into a traveling ‘mini museum’ in a suitcase, whereby Percy could explain modern contraception’s long lineage to fascinated onlookers through a handful of key objects. The inspired ‘mini museum’ could be transported easily all over the world. Percy’s curatorial prowess soon necessitated a permanent home for the ever-expanding collection at Ortho Canada’s HQ in Don Mills. Today, the Percy Skuy Collection is on permanent display at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. It continues to grow, year on year, as relevant technologies develop, and currently numbers over 1000 items.

The object collection is, however, but a part of the fascinating primary source material available to researchers at the Dittrick. Complimentary resources include a complete set of Ortho’s Canadian advertising for every product the Company produced. The Ortho range was not limited to contraception, but addressed the full reproductive cycle as well as gynaecological medicine. Products included Rarical iron supplement, Masse nipple cream, and menopausal therapeutics.

 The Dittrick is also home to Orthos’s scrapbooks. These are substantial clippings files containing news items from the Canadian press from the 1960s through to the early 1990s covering reproductive healthcare and the multimedia dissemination of contraceptive information. For anyone with an interest in the modern history of contraception in Canada, and the legacy of Ortho as a business, the scrapbooks offer immediate submersion into the treatment of the subject by popular and trade periodicals. The scope of the scrapbooks is not limited to Ortho; they proffer an overview of the birth control business as well as the complex consumer climate over four decades of dramatic change. For IMG_5970example, the scrapbooks contain fascinating trade literature on packaging and marketing.

The Percy Skuy Study Centre, a private study space, offers further resources for the curious historian to explore. It contains Percy’s own personal library and is available for researchers to peruse collected contemporary materials from his long tenure at Ortho. Of particular interest are hard-copy editions of the 1970s journal Family Planning Perspectives, and various manufacturer’s pamphlets discussing contraceptive products and techniques. This combined primary source material offers rich possibilities for research. Future topics might include Ortho’s pioneering work on RH Negative babies, Canadian access and contribution to new reproductive technologies, and even the broader history of contraceptive marketing in North America. The Canadian story of contraception can also be drawn into comparative studies; as a Commonwealth nation, Canada may be of particular interest for those studying the United Kingdom.

For myself, it was trade literature clippings in the Ortho scrapbooks that proved most stimulating. I was lucky enough to be granted a Dittrick Medical History Museum and Collection study award in April 2015, which I used to undertake research for my Doctoral thesis on the condom industry. In particular, I was interested in the coverage of Ortho’s entry into the condom market in the early 1970s. Ortho was a late starter into the condom business, principally because this highly effective method of contraception and prophylaxis was looked down upon in the mid-twentieth century. This was not unusual – to some minds, condoms were associated with itinerant sexual behavior, which in itself was considered socially undesirable.

Promo330 A Man's Guide to Preventing PregnancyNonetheless, by the time Ortho was ready to launch its first condom line, Conceptrol Shields, the contraceptive market had changed considerably. Oral contraceptives, which emerged in the 1960s, led to more exposure for family planning generally, and the display of rubber contraceptives had become permissible. In January 1970, Ottawa removed its restrictions on the distribution, advertising and general promotion of non-RX contraceptives, following an Ortho test campaign in the women’s magazine, Châtelaine. This meant that Ortho could exploit the new visibility of birth control with a sophisticated line of attractive consumer packaging. Shields launched in Canada October 1972, and in England the following summer. Ortho engaged Ogilvy, the advertising firm, to devise an image campaign for Shields condoms, which were billed as “the new male contraceptive for people who care”. A booklet, “A Man’s Guide to Preventing Pregnancy” was also offered free via a coupon.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to James Edmonson, Jennifer Nieves, Brandy Schillace, Laura Travis, all of whom ensured that my time at the Dittrick was buoyant as well as productive. Last but not least, I thank Percy Skuy for his warm personal support, and without whom this wonderful collection would not be available.

Jessica Borge Bio

Jessica Borge graduated from the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advance Study, University of London, with an MA in Historical Research in 2012.  She is currently an AHRC Doctoral Candidate at Birkbeck, University of London, where she is writing up her thesis, “The London Rubber Company, the Condom and the Pill in 1960s Britain”. Jessica is the joint 2015 winner of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health Van Foreest Prize (Best Paper by a Graduate Student) and is a recent Smithsonian International Placement Scheme fellow. In April 2015, Jessica was awarded a Dittrick Medical Museum Research Studentship to work with the Percy Skuy Collection.

J e s s i c a  B o r g e

AHRC Doctoral Candidate
[“The London Rubber Company, the Condom and the Pill in 1960s Britain”] Birkbeck School of Arts
University of London


Winner: 2015 European Association for the History of Medicine and Health Van Foreest Prize
Best Paper by a Graduate Student

AHRC Image Gallery of Oral Contraceptive Advertising

How Orals Altered the Contraceptive Marketplace in 1960s Britain








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