PLEASE NOTE: This blog topic is obviously about sexual safety, historic sexual practices, and writing of explicit scenes in fiction. It is intended to be helpful to writers working on fiction in WWII era and settings, and as such contains very frank discussion of very sexual content. Though there isn’t much in the way of explicit content in the actual post, you will find links below to more visually explicit content like VD training films (so. many. dicks.), and there is plenty of discussion of all of the associated topics. Please proceed at your own risk, and note that really this entire topic is Not Safe For Work. Unless you work as a sex historian in which case, carry on, please leave a comment, and I hope you record your time spent here as work hours.
Today’s incredibly random research topic comes to us courtesy of my recreational reading, in which a character in a WWII-era story, in a moment of shall we say particular intimacy, pulled out a strip of condoms, tore one off the strip, and ripped the package open with his teeth. It may or may not have been an absolutely delightful and explicit Captain America fan fiction. I absolutely maintain my innocence on this matter, by which I mean I’m happy to admit to you right now that reading explicit Captain America fan fiction is one of my greatest joys in life. No shaaaaame.
That condom scene, though, didn’t seem quite right to me on a couple of levels, the first being an instinctive recoil at the idea of opening a condom package with one’s teeth… seriously don’t do that, even if you’re fictional, you can tear the condom! But also, I was fairly certain that the condoms of the era didn’t come packaged in strips at all, and certainly didn’t have the sort of sanitary packaging which we all know and enjoy. I knew a little bit about it already, because I have been known to wistfully browse eBay looking at antique condom tins that I absolutely can’t afford to buy, but I wanted to learn more about what exactly a condom-opening scene would look like for an American soldier in WWII. Because… that is exactly who I am as a person, actually. Never has there been a more accurate summary of my personality. I can’t blame the author of that wildly delightful Cap story for not knowing those details, and I’m not here to come at them for it (and I very much enjoyed their story and kind of love them to be honest with you), but I thought some more detail on the condoms of the time period might be useful for authors of all sorts of historical fiction. And maybe it would encourage people to write me more Cap smut, you never know.
So, let’s dig right in to sex and prophylactics in WWII! I’ll be serving up info here mostly relevant to the U.S. armed forces; other militaries of the period had their own policies (particularly in Germany and Italy, where leaders were concerned with low birth rates and were actively encouraging their young people to make a lot of babies).
First, let’s touch on why this was such a big deal. Pretty much every army in history has had to be concerned with venereal disease (VD, what we in the modern world typically call STDs or STIs), particularly before the advent of more modern treatments for these conditions (like penicillin, which wasn’t discovered until 1928 and didn’t necessarily turn into really effective treatments for many of these conditions until a few decades later than that). The most serious threats in WWII were syphilis (aka “bad blood,” “pox,” “a case,” “the dogs,” and “lues”) and gonorrhea (aka “the clap,” “the strain,” “a dose,” or “running range”), which would take soldiers out of action entirely and require them to report to the hospital for treatment. In WWI, the US Army lost the service of 18,000 soldiers per day due to venereal disease, and the cost of treatment for all those men was extremely high. By WWII, treatments had advanced and the rate of infection had fallen to more like 600 men a day, largely because of education programs and the Army’s dogged determination on the subject. But treatments could take soldiers off of active duty and send them to hospital for weeks or even months, so clearly it was in the Army’s best interests to prevent their men from getting infected at all. They had a pretty extensive education campaign, including propaganda posters, training videos, lectures, and leaflets, and they also set up a network of “pro stations” (prophylactic stations) for soldiers to visit immediately after a sexual encounter, to clean themselves and be treated with chemical prophylactics. (We’ll get into more detail on that a little later.)
For prevention of infection, the most effective thing was a condom, which had become pretty widely available by this point, from the nearest drug store, or for soldiers, from the base Post Exchange (PX), which is basically the base store. The first thing to cover, since it’s where my original question came from anyway, is condom packaging! There was some serious variety, and serious progress in packaging styles, right through the 1940s, both pre- and post-war.[Above are, from top left, a pair of Peacock promotional items (not condom containers), a pair of metal condom tins. Second row are plastic/bakelite condom packaging, most likely post-war. Round Gold Circle tins are probably also either pre- or post-war, but very similar to tins popular in the German army, and brands like “Merry Widows” common before the war. At bottom and bottom right, condoms and paper condom sleeves. Condoms were typically packaged like this, squeezed into an oval with a paper band. The Sheik bands pictured are the same type, they just cover more of the condom, and are clearly designed with branding in mind.]
The metal tins that make me wish I could afford to be an antique collector were no longer in heavy production when America entered WWII, because all metals were needed for the war effort. Condom manufacturers switched instead primarily to packaging made of light cardboard. These packages could be unfolded completely, or typically had a opening flap that could be used to reclose the package (not unlike a book of matches), and would usually contain three condoms. Condoms in this era were not always individually wrapped, so not necessarily what we’d call highly sanitary, but they would usually be packaged in this sort of oval configuration with a paper band around them, and would be protected somewhat by the boxes they came in. It’s entirely possible GIs would have kept their condoms in their own containers as well, like metal condom tins purchased before the war, or just in their personal toiletries kit. Though condoms were still called “rubbers” commonly, by this point they were manufactured from latex (invented in 1920), and had a shelf life of five years, making them superior to rubber in really every conceivable (no pun intended) way.
Another common condom packaging for the period was a simple paper sleeve, containing a single condom. Some of these were marked as “specially packed for the Forces” and “special packaging for British and Allied Armed Forces“, and the Germans had their own versions of the same. These could be distributed individually, or sold in packs inside an additional box.
After WWII, condom technology and packaging advanced pretty rapidly. The kind of individually sealed, foil wrapped condoms that we know and love today weren’t far off, as consumers were more concerned with having a hygienic product (these wrappers weren’t developed during war time because literally all the tin was needed for the war effort). The rapid rise and popularity of automated vending machines post-war also brought even more compact individual condom packaging, with many brands being available in small matchbox-sized packages, individually cellophane-wrapped just like packs of cigarettes, and available from vending machines. But most condom packaging actively during America’s involvement in the war would have been much simpler.
As far as where soldiers would actually get their condoms, I’ve found very conflicting information, but it’s generally accepted that soldiers were issued some condoms by the armed forces, and likely purchased even more from the PX or drug store. Aine Collier’s book The Humble Little Condom (see the end of this post for more info and links) describes some 50 million condoms being handed out by the services per month. Some sources say that they were actually Army-issued, and go so far as to provide an inventory item number for a “mechanical prophylactic,” but I haven’t been able to uncover any photographs of what that item would have looked like, if it was specifically an Army-issue item in Army-issue packaging. Some condom packaging from the era, however, explicitly states that the condoms were produced for the use of the military, so if indeed the Army was issuing condoms, these may well have been produced by companies like Durex or Cello for the military, with their own branded packaging. This source actually cites a specific number of condoms and chemical prophalaxis kits (“pro-kits”) issued to soldiers:
Perhaps one of the most important steps which was taken by the U.S. Army during WW2 to reduce the spread of V.D. amongst its soldiers was the issue of U.S. Army Prophylaxis. This is described as Item #9118100, Prophylactic, Mechanical, Individual, 144. The Medical Department issued condoms without charge at a rate of six per man, per month, and individual pro-kits (sometimes called “V-Packettes”) at a rate of two per man, per week. Apart from the Medical Department issue Prophylaxis, troops would often purchase condoms privately from PX Stores and other sources. Brands included Cello, Golden Pheasant, Texide, Doughboy, Silver-Tex, Thins, Trojan and Prophyl-tex
It would certainly have been in the Army’s interest to distribute condoms, rather than just relying on soldiers and sailors to purchase their own. According to the Army’s own VD training videos, hiring a prostitute would typically cost a GI around $2. Many of the era’s condom 3-packs were priced at around $1. It’s not difficult to imagine soldiers skipping the expense of the condom, especially considering the misconceptions about VD that were obviously common at the time. From viewing VD training videos, it’s obvious that many soldiers thought they could tell whether a woman they were planning to sleep with had VD on the basis of whether she “looked clean.” They would also seek cures from drug stores, in an effort to avoid getting into any trouble with their chain of command, and would receive useless tinctures that wouldn’t work at all as treatment for their infections. (The training films emphasize that soldiers won’t receive punishment for going on sick call to receive VD treatment, but I don’t doubt there was some stigma against soldiers who put themselves in the hospital for having sex, especially if they did it repeatedly, when their buddies were being deployed or even being sent home, leaving behind the guy with the VD.)
There were some serious problems with the Army’s VD education programs, however, and they’re pretty much the ones you’d expect: sexism, racism, and heteronormativity. Black soldiers, who served in segregated units, received much less training on the subject, had much lower rates of condom use, and the rate of VD in those units was much higher compared to white units. Female soldiers (WACs and WAACs) still only received abstinence-only education. And the idea of gay soldiers was of course not approached at all, because they supposedly didn’t exist; VD training films very explicitly stated that the only way for a soldier to catch VD was from a woman, which could have led to gay men in the Army thinking they couldn’t catch anything from other men. (I like to hope they knew better, but my faith in people’s sex education knowledge is pretty much always at an all-time low.) Really, it’s a little hilarious, in a completely sad way, how far we haven’t come with modern sex education.
Pro Stations and Chemical Prophylactics
Aside from using condoms, the Army’s other major effort on this front were the pro stations, which offered treatment with chemical prophylactics. This delightful treatment involved sitting at one of many sink stations specifically designed for washing your genitals (it’s a sink with a seat so you can wash your dick, I’m never going to stop finding it hilarious), washing with soap and water, and then the application of a medicated cream (with mercury, how fun!) both into the urethra and on the surface of the genitals as well.
Soldiers were also issued a “pro kit,” which contained basically a field version of the same treatment: a pre-soaped cloth, a tube of ointment, and an instruction sheet on how to use it. Both of these chemical prophylactics needed to be used quickly after sexual contact, and the Army urged soldiers to complete the treatment within an hour after contact. The pro-kit’s very similar precursor, the “dough boy prophylactic kit,” issued to soldiers in WWI, was apparently both ineffective and painful, but I couldn’t find any information on whether pro stations and pro-kits actually helped control VD rates in WWII, or whether the availability of condoms and increased Army education programs about the risks of and treatment for VD might have had the bigger impact. (Apparently the WWII version of chemical prophylatic was painless, so that would have encouraged more consistent use.) Certainly the availability of better drug therapies in WWII helped soldiers recover more fully, and more quickly, enabling them to be sent back to their units and continue their duties.
Want to see what a pro station looked like and exactly how chemical prophylactics and cleaning were done? You’re in luck, because most VD films show the process in vivid detail, and you can watch them from the comfort of your own home thanks to the wonders of the Internet. These films are all not safe for work and include lots of explicit views of both healthy and incredibly unhealthy penises. View at your own risk, but if you’re interested, you can try Official Training Film #8-154 (1941), Pick Up (1944), and Easy to Get (1947). That last one gives a nice view of an actual pro station, with soldiers using it, at around the 14 minute mark. (It also shows some incredible dancing skills!) Three Cadets also offers a good look at the individual pro-kit and how it was used. All of these films offer a pretty great insight into exactly what sort of challenges the Army was facing in the soldier’s lifestyle, what sort of beliefs about VD were widespread in the ranks, and what sorts of products soldiers might use to try to treat an infection on their own, without reporting to their medical officer.
So, if you’re writing a sex scene in a story based in WWII, your character isn’t going to be tearing open a sealed-packet condom like we have today, but will probably be flipping open a cardboard or paper wrapper, and simply taking a condom out. They might need to rip or slip off a paper tube holding the condom in an oblong shape, or they might just open up a simple paper packet and have their condom ready to go. Some condoms may already have had a reservoir tip — I’ve had trouble establishing exactly when that advancement in condom technology first appeared or became common, but it seems to have been sometime in the mid-1940s — but “teat tip” or not, soldiers were instructed on how to properly wear a condom, including leaving room at the tip. Condoms were rolled just like they are today (by this point most came packaged that way), and rolled on and off just like they do today. Brands readily available to GIs would probably include Trojan, Durex, Cello, Sheik, Ramses, Ultrex, Texide, and Golden Pheasant, among others.
Lubrication, Improvised and Otherwise
An important note about condom use and lubrication is that condoms and Vaseline (one of the most popular choices of lube for the era among writers) do not mix. Since Vaseline is oil-based, it will break down the latex of a condom and cause it to break. While Vaseline was used as a lubricant for all sorts of uses during the WWII era, and seems to be one of the most popular choices of sexual lubricant for the time period among writers, it was very much not advised for use with a condom. I have found sources warning soldiers not to use Vaseline with condoms, though I couldn’t for the life of me remember where I’d read that, so it may well have been common knowledge (and it’s likely anybody who made that mistake wouldn’t make it twice). Other oil-based substances known for use as historical or make-do lube, like olive oil, baby oil, cooking oil, cooking grease, etc., would also not work with a condom, and mechanical lubricants that would be available in wartime for weapons maintenance, like gun oil and Cosmoline (an oil used to grease guns and equipment to inhibit rust) would similarly not be suitable and honestly, you probably wouldn’t want them in your body anyway. (EDIT: Thanks to reader Simon for suggesting another possible lube option that would have been very handy for GIs: shaving cream. Barbasol’s “Overseas Special,” sold at-cost in the PX specifically for soldiers, was made of vegetable oil, petroleum jelly, boric acid, and lanolin, which I imagine would have worked well enough as a sexual lubricant in a pinch. Again, not condom friendly, but a possibility.)
Small tubes of water-based surgical or personal lubricant, like K-Y jelly (which has been around commercially since 1904, and marketed specifically as a personal lube since 1917), would have been available for sale in most places where condoms were sold, like drug stores. In this portion of one of the training films linked above (and just a warning again that if you watch past the section linked here with the condoms, you will definitely be seeing close-ups of dicks, just a NSFW warning for you there), there is an explanation of how to check a condom for defects, and soldiers are instructed to apply a small amount of lubricant to both the inside and outside of the condom when it’s applied, to help prevent it from tearing; the lubricant is referred to as being something issued to soldiers in their “packet,” presumably as part of the pro-kit, but I haven’t been able to find any other specific reference for that, or any pro-kit that lists a lubricant of that type on its contents. Possibly this refers to a very early version of the pro-kit (since the film itself is from 1941), and became unnecessary as pre-rolled, pre-lubricated condoms became available, but that’s just a wild guess on my part. The 1945 Trojan packaging you saw earlier in this article also has printed on it the name brand of a safe lubrication option (H-R lubricating jelly, which like K-Y was already available prior to the war, from 1931), which would have been just as easily available as the condoms themselves. All of these things would indicate to me that proper condom-safe lubricants like K-Y were probably very easily accessible to troops, whether at the pro station, the PX, or the local drug store, and were an expected part of the use of condoms for all people.
If your characters are really in a bind and in an isolated location where a suitable lubricant would be easy to come by, in addition to some of the options listed above, the old standby suggestion is spit… which would probably negate the disease-prevention aspects of the condom, anyway, and honestly spit is overrated for its lubricating properties. Your characters can do better, and realistically would probably be better prepared.
And if your characters are, for instance, actually deployed somewhere remotely dangerous, and are stealing a moment for a physical encounter in the midst of less than ideal circumstances where condoms or lubrication or both might be too much to ask… I beg you, bear in mind that there are a great many non-penetrative forms of sex, and an encounter between your characters can be just as meaningful without any penetrative sex at all. Let us not devalue the handjob! The intercrural! The desperate fumbling grope! The lesbians not dealing with dicks at all! I’d argue that taking risks with each other’s lives to make something more elaborate work, just so they can have penetrative sex, might be just downright negligent of them, in some situations. If your characters have been in the midst of real fighting, or have spent their day punching Nazis in the face, or whatever else, they might at that moment have priorities that don’t entirely jive with an extended sexual encounter, anyway. A meal and sleep might be higher up on their list of things to do, or they might want to get to the orgasms quickly, at least, if they’re going to bother with them at all. That might be an ideal time for you to get a little more creative with your scene, and inject it with a bit more emotional content, instead of a purely physical tab A-slot B. (You might be noticing that I have serious issues with some of the weird heteronormative attitudes from many writers of gay erotica who often seem to treat penetrative sex as the only real or meaningful kind.)
Sorry, I think I was supposed to be talking about condoms. I got a little side-tracked. Aside from their obvious usefulness for sexual encounters, condoms were also just a helpful, everyday part of a soldier’s kit. They could be rolled over a gun barrel to keep it clear of debris but still ready to fire (this was commonly done in Vietnam, but I haven’t seen many references to condoms used this way in WWII, other than non-specific references to this being done on the beaches in Normandy), used as an emergency water container (they’re kept in some Air Force emergency kits underneath pilot’s seats, for just this reason), or make a nice waterproof cover for all sorts of small goods you’d want to keep bone dry, like matches and fuses for explosives, particularly in underwater munitions.
Please note that links to these recommended books on the subject are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase them from this page, I’ll receive a small commission for having sent you. Please do use these links, as they help me to pay for my web hosting and keep bringing you helpful content!
To learn more about the history of condoms, from the ancient world to the modern one, you definitely want to read The Humble Little Condom, by Aine Collier. It’s a quick and engaging read, and written to be accessible for all audiences — just like good contraceptives should be. Here’s a short excerpt of just one of the fascinating facts inside:
Instead of the severe rubber shortage spelling the end for the intrepid condom manufacturers, the production of prophylactics proceeded at a breakneck speed throughout the war, making Schmid and Youngs ever richer, and positioning the London Rubber Company as the sole British producer. No matter the endless shortages, though. In England, where everything was rationed, there were two exceptions to the ration rule: beer and condoms. The Home Office defended those exceptions, claiming both were “good for morale.”
If you’re writing queer fiction set in the WWII era, and I desperately hope that you are so that I can read the shit out of it, you absolutely need to read Coming Out Under Fire, Allan Bérubé’s incredible and in-depth look at gay and lesbian life in the military in World War II. His sources and the sheer volume of information are just unparalleled, and it’s an engrossing read, too. I can’t possibly choose a single excerpt to share from this particular volume, because it’s all solid gold if you’re writing queer characters in this era, definitely worth a read. (There’s a passage about the U.S. armed forces rejecting potential male recruits on the basis of their bodies looking too feminine, which definitely enriched my extremely patriotic repeat 4th of July viewings of Captain America: The First Avenger yesterday. I guess if they hadn’t marked Steve Rogers 4F for his medical conditions, they probably would have rejected him for looking too gay.)
These are a few additional volumes on sex and love in WWII that you might want to take a look at; I haven’t read these ones (yet), so I can’t give you any personal feedback on them, but if you’re interested in doing further research on the subject, these books might be a great way to dig deeper:
- What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, by Mary Louise Roberts
- Thanks for the Memories: Love, Sex, and World War II, by Jane Mersky Leder
- Creating GI Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II, by Leisa Meyer
- Ask and Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out, by Steve Estes
- The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, by Margot Canaday
I’d also like to offer an additional thanks to user jcgolfun on ebay, who not only granted permission for use of a few of their photos but also gave me some additional information on the subject to enrich this post. People who collect vintage condom packaging are clearly the best kind of people.
I’ve done my best to present the results of an awful lot of research here, but as you can tell from the text, some of the information I found was contradictory or just plain unclear. If you have corrections, further information, or additional resources you’d like to add, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!
Need help with battlefield sexual logistics? Want to talk about Captain America fanfiction and my undying love for it? Hit me up in the comments! I’m also always happy to take suggestions for future “today I’m researching…” segments, on pretty much any topic, so feel free to send questions my way! If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me!