Since the 1920s, it was not uncommon for women to see advertisements that made large claims about the cleaning agent, Lysol, and it’s ability to prevent failed marriages and unwanted pregnancies. In fact, Lysol has had a lengthy past as an unregulated female douching solution, and between the 1930s and 1960s, it was one of the most popularized contraceptive products on the market (Ditterick Medical History Center). In a time where reliable information about pregnancy prevention was looked down upon, it is not surprising that unregulated black market products were making themselves readily available (Tone 156). An interesting point to note about Lysol is the fact that nothing within the product’s chemical composition actually prevents pregnancy. In fact, during this time where, “the spermicidal properties of chemicals were not well understood,” it seemed like a reasonable remedy to wash the sperm away before it had enough time to interact with the egg (Tone 76). One 1933 study done at Newark’s Maternal Health Center, discovered that of the 507 women who regularly depended on Lysol as a birth control, 250 of them had become pregnant (Tone 170). Not only was it ineffective, but it was also toxic to the human body. By 1911, 193 instances of Lysol poisoning had been reported, which included “21 suicides, 1 homicide, and 5 deaths from uterine irrigation” (Tone 171). How then, if Lysol was ineffective at preventing pregnancy and was potentially lethal, did it continue being advertised, and why were women continuing to douche with it?
Lehn and Fink, the manufacturer of Lysol at the time, managed to make their product well known by marketing it as being safe and reliable, playing on the fears and anxieties of women, being easily accessible and multi-functional, and by having a past as an effective cleanser that was strong enough to prevent the spread of deadly illnesses. Going further, advertisements for Lysol provided some kind of option for birth control during a time where the Comstock Act deemed the topic as being immoral. The product itself, along with many others, were highly unregulated by the government, and lastly, the advertisements progressed as world events altered people’s ideas about sex and pregnancy. For instance, Lehn and Fink published a pamphlet entitled, “Marriage Hygiene,” in 1932 during the Great Depression; a time when more women would be desperate to prevent pregnancy (“Marriage Hygiene”). Lysol products were able to side-step Comstock regulations by utilizing euphemisms to get their points across (example: feminine hygiene=pregnancy, germs=sperm, daintiness, cleanliness, and contentment are other examples related to preventing unwanted pregnancies to name a few that you can commonly see).
(1950s Lysol Advertisment. Sourced from, We Hunted The Mammoth.)
One way that Lysol made itself more trustworthy was through professional endorsements. Marriage pamphlets that the company released included sections entitled, “Frank Talks by Eminent Women Physicians.” These female professionals not only had a background in medicine, but they also intimately understood the struggles of women. The advertisements were also prominent in many popular women’s magazines, therefore, the product claims seemed more trustworthy because they were coming from a trusted source. An interesting thing to note is the fact that Margaret Sanger, the popular birth control advocate during this time, even endorsed Lysol’s use prior to Lehn and Fink producing advertisements that were solely focused on feminine hygiene. In her 1917 pamphlet entitled, Family Limitations, Sanger wrote that the, “following are some solutions to be used for the douche…” She listed Lysol as the top choice with other options including bichloride, potassium, permanganate, chinosol, a salt solution, vinegar, and cold water (Sanger 7). Lysol also used fears about failing relationships, unfulfilled young mothers, and a unsatisfactory intimate life to sell more product. Early advertisements provoked a fear of household germs harming the family, and eventually later ones began referring to sperm as the germs that, if left untreated, would lead to pregnancy. Some Lysol advertisements noted that women should blame themselves for their husband’s lack of affection. The idea that women could prevent being faced with an unwanted physical crisis down the road was a huge game-changer. Lysol provided the possibility for middle class American women everywhere to lead a planned life; one separate from worry and heartache…at least that is what they promised.
(Image of Madame Docteur George Fabre, a prominent gynecologist that encouraged women to use Lysol to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Lehn and Fink, “Marriage Hygiene,” (1932).
With the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1960s, the use of Lysol fell out of popularity, along with other less reliable methods. The 1965 court case, Griswold v Connecticut ruled that married persons had the right to access information about birth control devices and family planning (“Griswold v Connecticut,” 503). In 1972, Eisenstadt v Baird made it possible for all people, married or single, to have full access to contraceptives and information about them (“Eisenstadt v Baird,” 438). Lysol’s ability to make their product well known by marketing it as a safe and reliable method, playing on the fears and anxieties of women, being easily accessible and multi-functional, and by having a past as an effective cleanser, led to the success that Lehn and Fink witnessed from the 1930s through the 1960s. Lysol cleaning products today are available everywhere, but the information revolution surrounding birth control has made it possible for many women to bypass the experience of a Lysol douche.
(Love quiz for married women. Notice the doctor recommendation at the bottom intended to gain the trust of the consumer. Caroline Bologna, “This Early Use for Lysol is Wild,” Life.)
(If that doesn’t make you thankful for modern medicine, then I don’t know what will! )
Until Next Time,
Caroline, Bologna. “This Early Use for Lysol is Wild.” Life. Last changed 3 April, 2018. Accessed 25 March, 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry /lysol-original-use-women_n_5aa6d689e4b03c9edfae9848
“Contraception in America: Douching and Spermicides.” Dittrick Medical History Center: College of Arts and Sciences. Accessed 26 March, 2019. https://artsci.case. edu/dittrick/online-exhibits/history-of-birth-control/contraception-in-america-1900-1950/douching-and-spermicides/
“Eisenstadt, Sheriff v Baird, No. 70-17, Argued November 17-18, Decided March 22, 1972.”Library of Congress. Accessed 20 February, 2019. cdn.loc.gov/service/11/usrep/usrep405/usrep405438/usrep405438.pdf
“Griswold v Connecticut, No. 469, Argued March 29-30, 1965, Decided June 7, 1965.” Library of Congress. Accessed 20 February, 2019. cdn.loc.gov/servicelll/usrep/usrep381/usrep381479/usrep381479.pdf
“Marriage Hygiene”. New Jersey: Lehn and Fink, 1932. The Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health. Accessed 25 March, 2019. http://www.mum.org/lysobk32.htm
Sanger, Margaret. Family Limitation. 6th ed, 1917. https://archive.lib.msu.edu /DMC/AmRad/familylimitations.pdf
Tone, Andrea. Devices and Desires. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.