Foote, Edward Bliss (1829-1906) (birth control)

Edward Bliss Foote was the most important American writer on contraception in the last part of the nineteenth century. Born in a village near Cleveland in 1829, he became in succession a printer’s apprentice, a compositor, and, while in his twenties, associate editor of the Brooklyn Morning Journal. He then went on to study medicine, graduating from the Pennsylvania Medical University in 1860 and setting up practice in Saratoga Springs, New York. He later moved to New York City. Like many others in the effort to disseminate information about family planning, Foote, in his adult years, had become an advocate of free thought.

Even before he received his medical degree, in 1858 he had written Medical Common Sense, in which he raised the topic of the “best ways to control reproduction.” However, he had refused to discuss such methods in a public manner, informing his “married readers” that they could write to him enclosing one dollar, information about their temperaments, and their signatures, and he would send the information. Apparently emboldened by the response, Foote in his 1864 expanded and revised edition added more than one hundred pages devoted primarily to reproductive control and sexual physiology. He gave somewhat lengthy descriptions of four contraceptives that he claimed he had invented: (1) a “membranous envelope,” a type of condom made from fish bladders; (2) the “apex envelope,” a rubber glans penis cap; (3) a “womb veil,” a rubber diaphragm; and (4) an electro -magnetic preventive machine that Foote claimed prevented conception by altering the partner’s electrical conditions during intercourse. The first three would have been effective but the last serves to emphasize just how much medical quackery was part of the practice of many American nineteenth-century physicians. The trouble with the first three, however, was the cost. Condoms were sold for three to five dollars a dozen, the womb veil cost six dollars. The penis caps were somewhat less expensive but the electromagnetic machine cost fifteen dollars. In various reprintings of his book Foote made slight modifications and in the early 1870s mentioned the rubber condom, one of the earliest such mentions.

American physician and journalist Edward Bliss Foote was a freethinker and advocate of family planning through his newspaper articles.

American physician and journalist Edward Bliss Foote was a freethinker and advocate of family planning through his newspaper articles.

With the passage of the Comstock laws in the United States in 1873, Foote ceased to print his Medical Common Sense but instead incorporated much of it, minus the actual contraceptive advice, in a longer medical advice book, Plain Home Talk. This was frequently revised and issued under a variety of titles but none of them included specific advise on contraception. Instead he told interested married people that they could obtain an important pamphlet on the subject for ten cents either in person at his office or through the mail. The pamphlet was a small, letter-sized one, originally entitled Confidential Pamphlet for the Married and later entitled Words in Pearl, because it was set in pearl type. It included much of the advice given in his earlier work (and some of the last printings of it mentioned the rubber condom). He was arrested in 1874 for selling such pamphlets and was convicted of distributing obscenity and fined $5,000.

Recognizing the importance of reaching women with his products, Foote emphasized in his publications both the ease with which women customers could obtain his products and the secrecy with which they could use them. He opened a “Sanitary Bureau,” which became a distributing point for his products and publications, including many “not to be found in every respectable drug-store.” His wife, Dr. Mary Bond Foote, was also a lecturer and crusader for birth control and women’s rights. One of his sons, Edward Bond Foote, continued on in his father’s footsteps and wrote his own booklet of contraceptive advice, The Radical Remedy in Social Science; or, Borning Better Babies through Regulating Reproduction by Controlling Conception. Another son, Hubert, managed his father’s Sanitary Bureau for many years.

Foote was an ardent feminist, and his writings on birth control and sex emphasized women’s rights. He believed that every woman had a right to decide just when and how often she would receive the germ of a new offspring. Foote occupied a unique position in the medical history of contraception in that he started as an irregular medical practitioner who won the respect of the established profession. Generally, however, regular physicians did little to advance the birth control cause either by advancing contraceptive technology or educating their female patients about the sexual and reproductive system. Although undoubtedly many physicians gave contraceptive advice or even performed abortions for selected clients, most of them publicly attacked birth control. In a sense they were the devoted guardians of sexuality and morality, but also self-appointed arbiters of situations in which exceptions might need to be made.

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