Mystery items in the Clarendon archive

Did we just find Victorian condoms in the Clarendon archive?

Emptying out a leather wallet found with a box of mainly 1850s letters sent to the 4th Earl of Clarendon, I came across a few stray items: a bad sketch of a woman called Josephine, a scrap of newspaper [*see an important update at the end!], and some folded tissue. It’s not unusual to find scrumpled bits of tissue paper in archives, and sometimes that tissue is wrapping something precious, so it’s always worth investigating.

This tissue struck me as unusual, however – what caught my eye was the shaped and curved edge, and the tiny hint of ribbon. Was this a folded glove, perhaps?

Tubes of yellowed paper or parchment or tissue with ties of narrow blue ribbon

Folded tissue with ribbon

The tissue was folded in half, lengthwise. When I unfolded it, it was immediately clear: not a glove, not unless you wanted to cover only one (very long!) finger at a time.

Instead there were four, individual, 8 inch/20cm-long tubes. For each, one end has been skillfully shaped, cut and sealed into a three dimensional dome, like a fingertip on a glove. The other end of each tube is fully open, and a pale blue ribbon drawstring is neatly tucked into a narrow hem around the circumference of each opening.

Unfolded 8 inch/20 cm tube of yellowed paper, parchment or tissue with ties of narrow blue ribbon

Unfolded length-wise, and 8 inches, or 20cm long (with nibbles along one edge)

And then I unfolded one width-wise too, revealing the full 2.5 inch diameter of the opening. The yellowed, translucent, tissue-like material, which is close to onion-skin fine, has torn in a few places where it has been folded for more than a century.

Unfolded 8 inch/20 cm long and 2.5 inch wide tube of yellowed paper, parchment or tissue with ties of narrow blue ribbon

Unfolded width-wise, revealing the full 2.5 inch diameter, and the dainty ribbon drawstring at the open end.

In fact it’s so delicate and crispy that it’s hard to believe it could have functioned as a barrier or container of any sort, even in its heyday. Looked at with the help of our conservation team’s light box, however, you can see that it’s not tissue at all, but animal intestine, blood vessels and all. In other words, exactly the same stuff as a traditional sausage casing. That means it was once much more supple and durable, and has simply dried out.

One of the Victorian condoms under a light sheet, revealing the blood vessels which show they're made of animal intestine

Under a light sheet

That distinctive sheath shape, meanwhile: almost unmistakeable.

Did the 4th Earl stash away some prototype condoms, or could these items have another use? Suggestions very welcome in the comments!

[*An update, Jan 2022: A death notice included in the fragment of newspaper has been dated to November 1821, which might also mean that the condoms are pre-Victorian.]

These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022.

10 thoughts on “Mystery items in the Clarendon archive

  1. No, indeed, and it’s also interesting tracking the changes in the spelling of the word back to the eighteenth century!

  2. On APR 27 1816, just two days after going into exile, Lord Byron writes to his friend Hobhouse from Ostend, asking him to send him “Cundums”. I don’t think there was anything prototypical about these in the 1850s.

  3. Not at all prototype: standard of the day. See instructions here http://www.lesleyahall.net/condoms.htm for making condoms from sheepgut. There is an illustration available here of what they would have looked like (more or less) https://www.muvs.org/en/topics/contraception/an-instruction-for-a-sheepgut-condom-en/ .Condoms have a habit, as it were, of turning up in library collections – there have been instances of them being found employed as bookmarks.

    Though by the 1850s mass-produced rubber condoms were just coming on the market, they were very thick and coarse and I hazard the discriminating user able to afford them still preferred the more traditional handmade sort.

  4. It’s definitely not an everyday find! (I hope these ones weren’t washed and re-used – hopefully the fact that there are four of them tucked together means that they were single use only…)

  5. It does look like an early condom. They were soaked in water to make them pliable before use. The biggest sellers in 19th Century were two rivals Mrs Phillips and Mrs Perkins. This could be an example of one of their ‘machines’, as they politely advertised them as.

  6. Haha, yes, the hygiene doesn’t bear thinking about! Though some condoms were designed to be washed and re-used. I bet your find was a bit of a talking point. Never came across anything as interesting/unusual when I was there 🙁

  7. Definitely a fun thing to come across! Thank you for commenting – I definitely can’t think of another explanation for what these might be, although given that they were tucked loosely into that wallet without any form of protective container of their own, I do wonder about the hygiene implications for both parties!

  8. What a great find! My money is on these being condoms. Similar forms of protection (from STDs rather than pregnancy) have been used for hundreds of years. According to the Wellcome Collection, the first documented use of condoms in Europe occured in 1564. The Earl of Clarendon was probably being commendably careful.

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