Amy C. Sarch

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Carolyn Marvin


This dissertation returns to an era when the American Medical Association did not consider contraception part of medicine. In the 1920s and 1930s, women shopped for diaphragms in Bloomingdales, ordered contraceptive douche from the Sears catalogue, and browsed for birth control bargains in drugstore windows. Ironically, contraceptive sales transpired even though a federal obscenity law made selling contraception illegal, along with contraceptive advertising and any form of birth control information. Advertisers camouflaged their products behind commonly understood euphemisms, like feminine hygiene, and the law left them alone. The goal of the birth control movement in the 19205 and 1930s was to take power away from the commercial advertiser and place it in the hands of the physician.

This study adds a new dimension to birth control history by considering the important and heretofore unexamined fact that contraceptive advertising existed, even though the ads were illegal, and that the advertisements played an important role in birth control advocacy. Birth control advocates convinced doctors to control the contraceptive field through rhetorical strategies that created distinctions between scientific and commercial contraception. Scientists were still developing laboratory tests to evaluate a contraceptive's effectiveness in the 1930s. Any difference between medical and non-medical contraception was not in the product's chemical make-up, but rather the communication strategies that determined a given contraceptive's hierarchical place. Birth control advocates fought hard to legalize contraception through medical approval and to make reliable contraceptive information readily available -- but not readily available through a medium that used the sexually desiring body to sell contraception. Advocates attached a clean, chaste meaning to birth control, a meaning that disassociated birth control from the sexed bodies that use it. They transformed birth control information into a discreet language that catered only to the medical profession to legitimate the public support of physicians and legislators. They succeeded. Commercial birth control advertising subsequently faded away and sixty years later, birth control is one of popular culture's best kept historical secrets.