Condom packaging for "Prentif Servis pak", London, England, 1935-1945
This small packet is empty. The condom it once held – “specially packed for the forces” – may be long gone, but the remaining packaging presents clues and raises questions about the missing object. For instance, why was it important to withstand “all climates”? Why the emphasis on not leaving it in a “public place”? Why would the armed forces be issued with condoms anyway? And, apart from the obvious, what might its owner have actually used it for? The condom is likely to date from the Second World War, when they were issued in their millions – and for good reason. Military planners were only too aware that for much of the First World War, what was hospitalising most soldiers on any given day was not war wounds but sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – then known as venereal diseases (VD). This was a historical problem and soldiers were constantly warned about the physical dangers and personal shame associated with VD. Issuing condoms, particularly to servicemen posted abroad, was one measure aimed at reducing VD levels. Hence the need to withstand “all climates”. Those supplying condoms also knew that many sexual encounters involving soldiers inevitably took place away from their army base – perhaps in backstreets or public parks. The warning not to cause offence by leaving them in a “public place” was especially prominent. Of course, soldiers need to be highly resourceful and condoms were put to imaginative use during the Second World War. They were convenient waterproof storage for personal items or for carrying high explosives. Soldiers bartered with them and even used them as currency. And during the D-Day landings, they were used to cover rifle barrels – protecting them from salt water as soldiers waded ashore. A use echoed decades later by soldiers in Iraq who have used condoms to keep the sand out of their gun barrels.
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Glossary: sexually transmitted infection
Any disease transmitted by sexual intercourse. STIs include HIV/AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhoea, some chlamydia infections and genital herpes.