When Lysol was Used as Birth Control

How advertisers scared women into poisoning themselves

Kyrie Gray
Aug 17 · 6 min read
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Image from Vintageads

You’ve probably seen Lysol at least once in your home. You may even use it, that trusted brand that disinfects your countertops. Yet in the past, it had another use included under the “all-purpose” umbrella. It was utilized by women as birth control. By scaring women into believing their marriage depended on controlling when they had babies, Lysol was able to place itself firmly in women’s health marketplace. Though this was the 1930s so no one talked about birth control openly. Companies relied on customers reading between the lines. Words like “germs” mean sperm. “Feminine hygiene” is referring primarily to birth control. Douching with the disinfectant had one purpose. To help women prevent unwanted pregnancies.

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Image from vintageads

Here is a popular message. A marriage literally smashing against the “reef of dangerous half-truths” that could have been avoided. These half-truths might be referring to one of the many ways women have quietly tried to stop or end a pregnancy. From salt, sponges, to vinegar rinses, there was no shortage of techniques women might try if it meant not accidentally conceiving. Today we understand how fertilization works, so we can see why such methods often failed compared to the modern pill or condom.

Lysol, however, promised to outdo these old wives tales and prevent the a woman from having an unexpected child. A concept the obviously living child above is trying to cope with. I’m not saying her mom said it’s her fault that daddy left. It just seems like she might have from her expressions in the picture.

In case you had any doubts as to the intent of these ads, Here is a solid example of who the douching product was aimed toward. The ad is for “married folks only,” which is proof that this product is supposed to be used by women who would be having sex regularly. In particular, a group whose husbands would be less willing to use condoms. Married women in middle-class to lower-income homes were already struggling in the 1930s to hold their union, and perhaps small family, together despite the unemployment rates and disastrous economy. To bring a child into an already struggling home, well, she should have known better according to this ad. No wonder the man resents her.

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Image form Pinterest

Seriously though, it was portrayed as a serious shortcoming to not know how to prevent pregnancy, despite it being a taboo subject. This perfect wife did everything right except this ONE THING which destroyed her marriage. Her lack of knowledge about “feminine hygiene,” caused her downfall. For shame! At least she has a child and that bird to keep her company once he leaves.

If there is one thing that early American advertisers didn’t lack it was a spider webs on their mood boards. What’s the web symbolize? Her husband’s indifference. What causes this indifference? Children. More babies are why her husband’s affections are out of reach. And this isn’t’ the era where you can just leave a jerk like that, so she’s trapped.

In the text it states “Was the fault mine?Well…thinking you know more about hygiene, yet trusting to now-and-then care, can make all the difference in married happiness, as my doctor pointed out.”

What does that mean? It means douching with Lysol, not unproven “home-made solutions” is the key to marital bliss . Only by working hard at her birth control routine could the woman be allowed back into the arms of her husband.

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A collage of several Lysol ads from the 1930s, compiled by author

Deciding they weren’t being obvious enough, some executive at Lysol decided to use the calendar motif in their ads. It brought to mind the fear of missing one’s period, which will happen if a foolish woman is not diligent with her douching habits. It was a crazy time when women were more afraid of calendars and babies than they were of poisoning themselves.

Still, what was a woman to do? Birth control, even for married couples, wasn’t always legal. It might also be an expense one couldn’t afford. Lysol was cheap, wildly available, and (according to the advertisers anyway) worked. The alternative of trying to get an abortion was not only very difficult, it was very dangerous. According to some researchers, nearly 1/5 of maternal deaths in 1930 were attributed to abortion. That is if they were recorded at all and not hidden out of shame.

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Booklet form 1932 produced by company that made Lysol (Image from Mum.org

Lysol capitalized on women’s fear of both unwanted babies and back alley abortions by promising their product would be foolproof. Like many companies of the time, Lysol was quick to provide a handy little guide for how to use their product. The title, shouldn’t leave anyone guessing as to what is being cleaned.

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Snapshot from digital copy of Marriage Hygiene from Mum.org

One passage explains why it must be used immediately. According to the passage above, “The effectiveness of an antiseptic against germs depends, to some extent, upon how prompt you use it after exposer.” In other words, using it right after sex, or daily afterward, would have an impact on if you would end up pregnant.

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Image from Vintageads

Plus, according to Lysol it’s not just a woman’s fault for getting pregnant. Here a mother grieves her own mishandling of her daughter’s education on the matter. You see, they are both to blame for the husband’s ire. It would be only with the salvation of harsh disinfectants terminating the pregnancy the lovers are ecstatic and continue their marriage. It didn’t matter how much much her lady bits burned, she had her husband back!

Women would continue to use Lysol for decades, despite evidence of its dangers and ineffectiveness. The cheapness and wide availability of the product were particularly appealing, especially to women for whom birth control methods were still heavily restricted in some parts of the country. It would not be until the 1960s with the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut case, in which the Supreme Court made it illegal for local laws to prohibit the use of birth control with married couples (the law making it OK national for single women would come 4 years later), that Lysol would be put to use only for its original purpose of cleaning one’s counters.

In some ways these ads seem otherworldly. Yet the echos of these ads exist today. Women are still expected to bear the brunt of accidental pregnancies. After marriage women usually are the ones to stay on birth control and men finally get the pleasure of sex without a condom. Even though a condom is temporary and doesn’t include possible acne, chances of infection, unforeseen hormonal imbalances, or clots.

Now America’s maternal death rates are rising. Care from providers like Planned Parenthood is being threatened weekly. Unless more is done to protect the rights of women to decide their own fate we’re going to see more ads like these Lysol ones. There will be some flat out wrong viral tips on social media that will get someone killed. Inevitably, those methods will fail and vulnerable people will once again be in danger of getting dangerous procedures that could have been avoided.

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories…

Kyrie Gray

Written by

Writer of humor, spooky things, and history. Subscribe to my newsletter, Guffaw for updates, musings and other fun stuff https://guffaw.substack.com/welcome

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories, and share our lives together. We will not be silenced. We will be fearless. And we will write.

Kyrie Gray

Written by

Writer of humor, spooky things, and history. Subscribe to my newsletter, Guffaw for updates, musings and other fun stuff https://guffaw.substack.com/welcome

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories, and share our lives together. We will not be silenced. We will be fearless. And we will write.

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