How much did a condom cost in 1944? What did the package look like? Where could one be bought? Were there machines in the toilets (we called them toilets) of bars, as there were in the late 1950s? I was writing a novel about the U.S. home front in World War II (Four Freedoms, just out), and I needed to know. Why not just skip the detail, and say, "He bought a condom" or "He produced a condom"? Because the small details of common life give actuality, aliveness, and thickness to a historical story in the same way they do to a present-day story. The difference is you have to go find the details of the past; you can't just draw on experience.
The writers of historical fictions, just like real historians, do (or ought to do) a huge amount of research before beginning on their works, and then continue doing research until the very end. They are, however, often looking for different stuff. The reasons for things, the reasons that people believed they had for acting as they did, the forces pressing on them that they dimly grasped or didn't, a chronology that puts cause before effect — that (I imagine) is what the historian spends her research time looking for. Except when tiny details of action matter very much (at exactly what hour was that telegram sent?), the minutiae of dress and dinner, how a character spent his morning or evening, the maker of her gown and how much it cost, aren't the goal. The fiction researcher's work is the opposite, or mirror image (as historical fiction is the mirror of history — the same stuff but not). What the fiction researcher wants is masses of actual detail, whether pertaining to his characters (if his characters are historical) or to others like them. He cares less what everybody did, or what masses of people did, than about what was possible to do. He cares less about what an actual person did than what any person could have done: could someone like the one I am imagining have thought this thought, owned this gun, remembered this event, worn this hat? He needs the stuff to help him make a world of the past that is as believable as one made out of the present.
Of course, writers of fiction can be more or less conscientious about their research. (Though, they can't be exposed as frauds if they get the details, or even the big picture, wrong; they start out as frauds.) Some care a lot, others less; Walter Scott, who in a sense invented the historical novel, often footnoted his stories, to back up his inventions with evidence. Fiction writers can always claim that detailed research is unnecessary or peripheral to their work — but they can no longer claim that it's too hard. I don't know if the Internet, in all its glory and some of its shame, has changed things utterly for professional historians — if it has, they may not be telling — but it has made research for a writer of historical fiction a piece of cake: that sweet, that delightful, that filling.
And it's not only Google and Project Gutenberg and JSTOR. I used those tools almost every day, following leads from place to place and having strange adventures with collectors, memoirists, visionaries, merchants, and obsessives (try writing anything about old cars, railroads, airplanes, World War II, or comic books, without turning them up). But I also had the help of the readers of my blog (John Crowley Little and Big on Live Journal), who are an inordinately smart bunch, I think, and ready to go look things up and bring them in. We've had some wonderful interchanges — like the time I needed to know how much a condom cost in 1944.
Typing in the words "price" and "condom" and "1944" sent my Smartypants Brigade first to eBay, where several vintage-condom-related items were for sale. It turns out that antique condom containers, packaging, and related ephemera are, guess what, collectible. LJ user "jonquil" wrote: "This has no date, so may well be useless to you. A Merry Widow Tin with the price embossed." Then "nineweaving" sent me a British one: "Seems to have been a cheerful red box on this side of the pond. Co-Ed Prophylactics, rah! Stay away from college girls, when you're on a spree..." Soon we were having exchanges like this:
"cameo": I found a couple links that might amuse you... a slew of historical packaging for condoms from the Powerhouse Museum in Australia: A gallery of 21 Paper-based Condom Envelopes from the 1930s and 1940s: http://www.ep.tc/condom-envelopes/
"crowleycrow": (2007-07-04 23:32:21) Beautiful paper packages — Real sanitary I'm sure. And the names! Bufalo — Odalisco — Poncho. You can almost feel the fan turning overhead and the music from the zocalo drifting through the shutters.
"cameo": My favourite was "Devil Skin."
"jonquil": I quite like 'Odalisque', but 'Sedatex' looks alarming. Mickey Finn for your John Thomas?
One of my correspondents alerted a real sex historian. As a Brit, her responses were intriguing but not quite pertinent:
"oursin": There's no one answer to the question of how much was a condom. I've looked at a few catalogues from the mid-late 1930s (UK), and a single dealer might be selling items costing from 3d to 1 guinea — depending on the style, grade, whether it was reusable/washable, rubber or skin, etc. That's before going into the economies of scale through buying in bulk... You could also get mixed sample packs with different types. Some came in tins and others didn't. One also hears stories of men about town who had their own special monogrammed johnnies made to order. I'm not sure I'd trust a thruppenny condom, but I'm not sure either that reliability would necessarily have been massively improved by paying the top prices.
"crowleycrow": Thanks for all this — in particular for the phrase "thrupenny condom" which I will treasure up for use elsewhere... "two-bit condom" is close but not as funny.
"jonquil": whether it was reusable/washable, isn't that an unpleasant thought... for the prevention of disease indeed.
"crowleycrow": You usually tossed the cheaper rubber ones, and washed/reused/re-rolled the "skins" (actually sheep intestines). We were thrifty, tough, and stupid back then.
After more of this, I was able confidently to have my character make a choice between Merry Widow, Sheik, Co-ed, and Lucky brands (the last my own invention: "Lucky if they don't bust," says another character). He pays $1.75 for a tin of three (rubbers). The Smartypants Brigade also alerted me to a European condom-promotion TV ad directed by Michel Gondry and available, of course, on YouTube, in which a retro/Depression scene features just such a tin. I wonder how he knew...
The great danger in all historical research, for the lover of trivia and oddity, is distraction; it's one of the rewards, too. Just as we have our word "serendipity" from a novel about the three wandering princes of Serendip, surely the future's word for the thing will derive from Google. (Googletarity? Googletude? Googlelinity?) I went to the Internet to try to prove my theory that "kick the tires" as a phrase dated from the rubber and tire shortage of World War II; I never could, but I did find a site selling the "Accu-Thump," a thing like a blackjack (when's that date from?) that contains a gauge; when you thump your tire with it, it will tell you if it needs air. Interesting; I thought of acquiring an Accu-Thump for myself. The same site, however, also expounds the inventor's plans for a Christian currency: "a coin that [Christians] could trade amongst themselves so they could be constantly reminded of their Creator and Savior instead of coins with an idol or king." How else would I ever have discovered this odd and evocative idea? The germ of another story right there.
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John Crowley lives in the hills above the Connecticut River in northern Massachusetts with his wife and twin daughters. He is the author of ten previous novels as well as the short fiction collection Novelties and Souvenirs.
Books mentioned in this post
John Crowley is the author of Four Freedoms