Is it a pump? A turkey baster? An old car horn? No, it’s the ‘Whirling Spray Ladies’ Syringe’ – a vaginal douche!
This orange rubber syringe dating to the 1890s, has a round bulb at one end, and a long, thin nozzle at the other. The original packaging was in a blue cardboard box, advertised as ‘Whirling Spray – Ladies’ Syringe’. The box with the douche and matching cone shaped attachment were “found under the floorboards of a terraced house in Clapham”. But why was it kept under the floorboards? And what does one do with a Whirling Spray?
The box claims that it is the “latest and best syringe ever intended to thoroughly cleanse the vagina”. What the box doesn’t say, is that the syringe was intended to cleanse the vagina of semen after sex. Vaginal douching was one form of contraception common from the mid-1800-early 1900s.
Charles Knowlton, an American doctor, first recommended using douches as a form of birth control in his pamphlet Fruits of Philosophy: A Treatise on the Population Question (1832). He recommended the woman to flush out her vagina after sex using a solution of spermicides, in conjunction with other methods such as cervical caps for best results. Spermicides were often simply pure or soapy water (either hot or cold); or solutions made from quinine, borax, alum, copper, salts, vinegar, baking soda, bichloride of mercury, carbolic acid, white vitriol, lactic acid, and tartaric acid (Brodie 1994, 75; Cook 2004, 122). Many of these were common household cleaning ingredients. Quinine was a compound derived from a plant called cinchona (which was also administered at the St Thomas Hospital for curing fever in the 1800s). Apart from contraceptive uses, douching was overtly touted as a way to deliver medicine into the vagina to cure infections, but also recommended as a general way to keep the genitals clean, remove odours, and stay in good health for women – some doctors recommended douching up to four times a day! Unfortunately, these spermicides, along with vaginal syringing were not always effective or healthy.
In the United States, the vaginal douche became part of the woman’s toilette for both contraception and general hygiene. However, vaginal douching and syringing remained unpopular England, because it was it ‘killed the mood’ – the woman had to immediately get out of bed after the man ejaculated, making sex unpleasant and annoying (Cook 2005, 136).
This snippet explains what it was like to use a vaginal douche after sex in the 1920-30s. The uncomfortable experience was probably similar for women using the Whirling Spray in the early 1900s:
“If the weather is cold and the room where the douche has to be taken inadequately heated, the woman’s disinclination [to get up immediately] is likely to be increased…douching is a nuisance even for the prosperous French woman with her well-warmed bathroom, her bidet and her fountain douche. In Anglo-Saxon communities, where bathrooms are notoriously the coldest and most cheerless in our houses, where the presence of a bidet is regarded as almost a symbol of sin…immediate post-coital douching is more often a pious wish than an accomplished fact.” (Haire 1936, 83 in Cook 2005, 136).
Despite this, people still imported patent syringes from the United States into Great Britain, and English manufacturers also produced rubber vaginal douches. Many brands existed on the market— from Hercules, to the Marvel Whirling Spray, Ingram’s ‘Eclipse’ Whirling Syringe, the Frauendusche Niagra, and the Frauenheil. Because birth control was often seen as immoral or taboo; (in the United States direct advertising for birth control was even banned in the 1870s) most advertisements used vague and euphemistic language to indirectly refer to contraception.
The ‘Marvel Whirling Spray’ was ‘Patented 1899 in the United States, and the pamphlet gives detailed instructions for directions of use. The rubber vaginal douche at the Old Operating Theatre was probably used in the same way:
1. Prepare water or a solution of spermicide to wash the vagina
2. Remove rubber cap, squeeze the bulb and dip the nozzle in prepared fluid, then let go so that the bulb expands and sucks up the fluid.
3. Hold the rubber ball, insert the rod into the vagina and sharply squeeze and release so that the liquid sprays into the vagina.
4. For a quick wash, insert the nozzle into the vagina and squeeze, standing over a pan or vessel to catch any liquid that falls out.
5. After use, take apart the syringe to rinse and dry.
The Frauenheil advertisement also says that it ‘removes the smallest traces of secretions’,– a euphemism for semen, and mentions that its elegant design is suitable for display on the dressing table. In contrast, the syringe from the Old Operating Theatre was found under the floorboards. The hidden nature of the Whirling Spray speaks of secrecy, shame, and the illicit, contraceptive use of this vaginal douche in the user’s Clapham household. From the 1800s onwards, debates about birth control, population size, social morality and the role of men and women in managing fertility emerged across Europe, America and Australia. Although pregnancy and childbirth were extremely dangerous, many felt that artificial contraception was immoral, and the only way to control population size was through late marriage or abstinence. However, the consequences of falling pregnant were always graver for the woman. We do not know who used this syringe, only that the owner felt compelled to hide it; and in hiding it, they reveal to us the ancient and ongoing human desire to control fertility, and the struggle between pleasure and pain.
Today, we have more reliable methods of birth control. The Contraceptive Pill, the condom, diaphragms, an array of Intrauterine Deviances including copper coils and the Mirena; along with the contraceptive injection are all available to us. More importantly, there is much less stigma, shame and misinformation regarding birth control, and the need for rubber contraceptive syringes parading as a tool for hygiene (thankfully) no longer exists.
- Howell, Karen. “Old St Thomas’ Hospital A-Z of Herbs: A Historical Compendium.” Added June 14, 2020. https://oldoperatingtheatre.com/old-st-thomas-hospital-a-z-of-herbs-a-historical-compendium/.
- McLaren, Angus. 1978. Birth Control in Nineteenth-century England. New York: Holmes & Meier.
- Cook, Hera. 2005. The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception, 1800-1975. ACLS Humanities E-Book (Series). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
- Brodie, Janet Farrell. 1994. Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-century America. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press.
- Jütte, R. 2008 Contraception: A History. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Carnevale, A., D. McGuire and J. Kelly 2016 ‘Removes all obstacles’: abortifacients in nineteenth-century Toronto and beyond.International Journal of Historical Archaeology 20:743-767.
- Crist, T.A. 2005 Babies in the privy: prostitution, infanticide, and abortion in New York’s Five Points District. Historical Archaeology 39(1):19–46.
- Yamin, Rebecca (editor) 2000 Tales of Five Points: Working-Class Life in 19th-Century New York, Vols. 1–6. Report to Edwards and Kelcey Engineers, Inc., Livingston, NJ, and General Services Administration, Region 2, New York, NY, from John Milner Associates, Inc., West Chester, PA.
- Sprenger, N.2007 The Rise and Demise of Patent Medicine Abortifacients and their Influence on the Agency of Victorian Women. Unpublished BA(Hons) thesis, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia.
- Museum of Contraception and Abortion. 2020. ‘Vaginal Rinsing’. https://muvs.org/en/contraception/douche/
- Marvel Company, Marvel Whirling Spray for Women. New York: Marvel Company,1908. https://muvs.org/en/bib/document/details/b1343?search=marvel.
- Marvel Company, Marvel Whirling Spray. London: Constantine and Jackson Limited, 1900. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/bua6nhy9/items?canvas=13.
About the author
Melody Li is a Msc Archaeology student at the University of Oxford who is interested in the study of ancient plants, food, medicine and women’s health in the past. She wrote her undergraduate thesis on the archaeology of ancient Greco-Roman contraception, and is currently researching taste and smell of ancient tea in China.