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Today, no form of birth control is as widespread as the condom – or as essential for sexual health. But it wasn’t always so.
Condoms were often associated with promiscuity and venereal disease, and were sold discreetly, in plain packaging. They were also notoriously unreliable.
Early condoms sold in New Zealand, such as this Durex one, were often less than reliable. All condoms were imported from the northern hemisphere, and those made from thinner rubber sometimes perished during the long sea voyage through the tropics. Condoms were not popular – and there wasn’t a great range to choose from.
Durex Protectives condoms, 1940s–1950s, United Kingdom, by London Rubber Company Ltd. Gift of Dame Margaret Sparrow, 2011. Te Papa (GH022092)
Condom quality improved in the 1970s. International standards were finally enforced following the first official British safety tests in the 1960s. Durex could finally lay claim to what it stood for: ‘durability, reliability and excellence’.
Durex Gossamer condoms, 1973, England, by LR Industries Ltd. Gift of Dame Margaret Sparrow, 2011. Te Papa (GH022101)
In the 1980s, condoms threw off their staid image. Companies experimented with romantic and raunchy packaging, and new technology sparked a wider range of options.
Lifestyles Harlequin condoms, circa 1992, by Ansell International. Gift of Dame Margaret Sparrow, 2011. Te Papa
With the advent of HIV and Aids in the 1980s, condoms had to be made more user-friendly and easier to buy, to encourage people to use them. Products such as Ansell’s Lifestyles range went on sale in New Zealand supermarkets in 1985. Before then, people had to buy condoms at chemist shops, where they sometimes felt embarrassed asking for them.
Lifestyles Stimula condoms, circa 1995, United States, by Ansell International. Gift of Dame Margaret Sparrow, 2011. Te Papa (GH022785)
Packaging with romantic imagery of couples in love were aimed at women, who were often in charge of the supermarket trolley.
Lifestyles Ultrasure condoms, circa 1989, United States, by Ansell International. Gift of Dame Margaret Sparrow, 2011. Te Papa (GH022547)
Until the 1980s, most condoms were made in flesh colours designed for European men. Māori and Pacific men preferred darker colours, so these black British condoms were imported to appeal to them. The incongruous image of a top-hatted white gentleman on the pack might be one reason the plan failed.
Durex Black Shadow condom packaging, 1986, England, by LRC Products Limited. Gift of Dame Margaret Sparrow, 2011. Te Papa (GH022093)
The impact of HIV and Aids prompted a dramatic rise in condom use in New Zealand in the 1980s and 90s. Gay, bisexual, and straight couples realised condoms were the only product that could protect against sexually transmissible infections (STIs) – and save lives.
Durex condom, The answer is NO if it’s not ON, circa 2000, Thailand, by SSL Manufacturing Limited. Gift of Dame Margaret Sparrow, 2011. Te Papa
Condoms are often marketed for fun and pleasure – both his and hers. But their serious side – helping to prevent pregnancy and protecting against HIV and STIs – is always in the fine print.
Ansell Lifestyles condoms, circa 2003, by Ansell International. Gift of Dame Margaret Sparrow, 2011. Te Papa (GH022583)
Today, condoms are available off the shelf or online, in every type, style, and colour imaginable. Clever packaging helps spread the message of protection by making products more appealing.
Durex condom, 2004, Thailand, by SSL Manufacturing Limited. Gift of Dame Margaret Sparrow, 2011. Te Papa (GH022097)
The quality improved in the 1970s, when international standards were enforced. Then New Zealanders began to trust condoms more. By the late 1980s, they were too frightened not to – HIV/Aids had arrived. Clever, colourful packaging helped spread the message of protection.
Dame Margaret Sparrow, one of New Zealand’s leading sexual-health doctors and birth-control advocates, has gifted nearly 800 contraceptive devices to Te Papa. They form an amazing record of technological and social change.
Learn more about 100 years of birth control in New Zealand, including trailblazing feminists and Dame Margaret Sparrow’s own experiences:
Find out how Dame Margaret’s contraceptive collection began, and how attitudes to safe sex changed in 1980s New Zealand:
Both videos were filmed in 2015 for the exhibition Contraception: Uncovering the collection of Dame Margaret Sparrow.