How ‘Orals’ Altered the Contraceptive Marketplace in 1960s Britain

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post is contributed by Jessica Borge, who has curated an AHRC- funded image gallery of 1960s oral contraceptive advertising. The gallery is available to view here.

Journal Ad [Detail], Practitioner, January 1962. Searle / 'Conovid'. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

Journal Ad [Detail], Practitioner, January 1962. Searle / ‘Conovid’. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

When ‘the Pill’ became available in 1961, a healthy private trade in mechanical and chemical contraceptives already existed in Britain. As Claire Jones’ on-going work reveals, a domestic contraceptive market had formally taken shape alongside mass print culture in the Victorian period; it remained buoyant into the electric age. Although some chain chemists, such as Boots, were particular about which devices they stocked and displayed, contraceptive devices were not difficult or impossible to obtain in urban areas. ‘Surgical Stores’, which often boasted large, graphic window displays, remained open throughout the 1960s and the condom, which of course had a particularly well-known outlet–the gentleman’s barbershop-remained widely used. ‘Rubber goods’ and the like had long been available via mail order catalogues, which could be acquired through small ads in newspapers. [1] From the 1930s onwards, caps, creams, pessaries, jellies and condoms could also be obtained through the Family Planning Association’s national clinic network; select FPA branches conducted pregnancy testing, infertility treatment and sex counselling. Every branch had a medical officer, and doctor-run sessions. Two early brands of oral contraceptives, or ‘orals’, had their clinical trials facilitated by the FPA, so the new method was a natural extension of the full gamut of fertility products they offered for purchase.

However, orals did not slot into the ordinary retail contraceptive market as they did in clinics. For one thing, orals were an ‘Rx’ medicine, which is to say that they could only be issued via a doctor’s prescription and could not be vended by the usual traders. Whereas pharmacists might dispense the Pill above the counter whilst touting caps or condoms below, surgical stores, barbershops and mail order firms simply could not trade in prescription drugs. In addition, although pharmacists could obviously supply orals, and benefitted from marking up the wholesale price, they could not issue prescriptions themselves. This was one factor that precluded the makers and retailers of mechanical devices from competing with the new oral method on the shop floor.

Another element debarring the pre-existing contraceptive industry from participating in the new birth control was the pharmaceutical manufacture of orals. Although some mechanical makers had produced chemical sundries, such as spermicides, this did not compare with intensive pharma production en masse, including the significant plant infrastructure and complex supply chain required for orals, as well as the ability to fabricate in several countries at once thanks to long-established international outposts. While some mechanical manufacturers eventually carried their own branded orals for short periods, production was outsourced and these Pills were never seriously competitive.

The biggest difference, however, lay in how the producers of pharmaceutical vs. mechanical contraceptives ultimately communicated the availability of their products to consumers.

Orals, by virtue of their Rx status, could only be advertised in medical circles, i.e., not to the lay public. The makers of condoms and caps were largely unaffiliated with family doctors, as British GPs had been historically resistant to providing birth control services. When orals emerged, the method claimed legitimate territory in the physician’s office, whether GPs liked it or not. This meant that, family planning clinics notwithstanding, ordinary physicians became agents in the contraceptive communication and distribution stream for the first time. The entire medical establishment could thereby be marketed to, and with recourse to a brand new field; that of physician-oriented birth control.

Conversely, although orals shifted the goal post, the world of family planning was completely new to the majority of oral contraceptive makers. This was both advantageous and problematic on both sides. On the one hand, mechanical manufacturers were not positioned to compete on an even playing field, but could at least communicate directly, to a degree, with their customers. On the other, it took time for oral contraceptive makers to develop a language for dealing with the product they wished physicians to prescribe.

1966. Physician's Circulars / Syntex, 'Norinyl-1'. By kind permission of Roche. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

1966. Physician’s Circulars / Syntex, ‘Norinyl-1’. By kind permission of Roche. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

Nonetheless, as potential intermediaries, GPs soon found themselves the subject of aggressive advertising for orals.* By the mid-1960s, the market had taken off significantly, and multiple brands – with multiple claims for efficacy and ease – jostled for market share.

The social success of hormonal contraception in the 1960s is notoriously difficult to quantify, and it is frequently the qualitative, corporeal difference between oral and other methods that is cited as the measure of the Pill’s grand achievement; namely, that momentous ‘separation’ of contraception and sex.

I would like to suggest that qualitative difference extends beyond the Pill, and even beyond the body. In 1960s Britain, orals existed on a completely different plane to mechanicals, because of the physical make up of the products, their mode of action, and regulation concerning how the respective contraceptives might be traded. In no place was this more visible than in promotional communications, and the day-to-day realities of the marketplace.

About the Author

Jessica Borge is an AHRC-funded Doctoral student with the Department of Film, Culture and Media Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London and an outline of her current research, “Communicating Contraception in the Age of the Pill”, can be found here. Jessica is a Smithsonian IPS Fellowship awardee [for 2015], and sub-edits for Dandelion.



[1] Claire Jones. “Under the Covers? Commerce, Condoms and Consumers in Britain, 1860-1960.” Presented at King’s College, London, October 8, 2014.

* Jessica has recently curated an AHRC funded image gallery of 1960s oral contraceptive advertising, which can be found here.


4 thoughts on “How ‘Orals’ Altered the Contraceptive Marketplace in 1960s Britain

  1. Pingback: Jessica Borge / Communicating Contraception in the Age of the Pill | The Hub

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #21 | Whewell's Ghost

  3. Pingback: History Carnival #140 | Imperial & Global Forum

  4. Pingback: Condoms, Pills and More: The Contraceptive Historian’s Playground – DITTRICK Museum Blog

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