Selling Sexual Certainty? Advertising Lysol as a Contraceptive in the United States and Canada, 1919–1939

I saw the Lysol Douche advertisements a few years back (more of which can be found here). This article is a fascinating look at the rise of the selling of Lysol being used as a feminine hygiene product despite the known risks. This sales pitch continued from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. It shamed women for not having sex with their husbands enough and that if they Lysol’d themselves it would fix their marital difficulty. It is really amazing that Lysol is still around and that this campaign went on for as long as it did. There were no legal recourses to protect consumers from these abuses at the time. The arguments remind me of similar ones being used against the need to regulate GMO’s today.

Lysol Ad #4

Women’s desire for contraceptives and the challenges they faced in acquiring them constituted an ideal situation for companies such as Lehn & Fink, who stepped in to offer a commercial solution. In her 2001 work Devices and Desires, Andrea Tone demonstrated that the medical community’s failure to provide birth control led to an “over-the-counter revolution” in which the marketplace offered women a multitude of contraceptive wares.26 By the interwar period, Lehn & Fink could readily join this revolution because it had a ready-made product that could be repositioned to be sold as a contraceptive. Additionally, by the late 1910s, the company was seeking a new market for Lysol.

To understand this, we must examine Lysol’s history. From 1889 until the 1910s, Lysol was primarily sold to the medical community as a disinfectant.27 Prior to its creation, hospitals used disinfectants containing carbolic acid, which was highly poisonous. Lysol’s main ingredient was cresol, a chemical less poisonous and more effective at killing germs than carbolic acid. Lehn & Fink informed doctors that Lysol was also safe enough to use on the human body and many physicians began to use the product in procedures ranging from simple wound disinfection to uterine irrigation.28 By 1909, however, physicians began to report instances in which patients experienced adverse physical effects, such as burning, after being treated with Lysol. Because of these reports, in 1912 the American Medical Association (AMA) Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry undertook an official inquiry into Lysol to determine whether or not the AMA should discontinue endorsing Lysol in its influential publication, New and Non-Official Remedies. The Council concluded that the product was far too dangerous to be recommended for further use among physicians. This decision led doctors to discontinue using Lysol in offices and hospitals.29 Lehn & Fink gradually lost its primary market for Lysol during the 1910s, but by the 1920s the company had repositioned Lysol for mass market sale as a household cleaner and contraceptive douche.

Repositioning Lysol as a household disinfectant was not difficult for advertisers given the fact that cleaning products were legal, but they did face a challenge in selling the product as a contraceptive. The company launched two mutually exclusive advertising campaigns for Lysol—one promoting it as a household cleaner and the other for contraceptive purposes. On the contraception front, the firm first faced the task of conveying to consumers that the product was intended for birth control. Advertisers attempted to articulate this message through the euphemistic term “feminine hygiene,” coined in the 1920s to describe contraceptive products for women (in other words, contraceptives that were not condoms).30 Contemporary medical experts, journalists, and birth control advocates criticized companies who used the term, arguing that legitimate forms of birth control could not be sold legally while, “by a judicious use of language, contraceptive wares could be advertised and distributed as freely as any other class of goods.”31 By the late 1930s, Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, disgustedly argued that the term feminine hygiene had facilitated the rise of an industry selling ineffective, dangerous, products. Fishbein observed:

The feminine side of the birth control business is appalling. Women spend $200,000,000 yearly for millions of devices, instruments, jellies, powders and liquids. . . sold largely under the deceptive advertising term ‘Feminine Hygiene.’ Not one of them has proved to be entirely effective when used alone, and some of them are potentially dangerous.32

In 1932, Lysol created a series of advertisements entitled “A Series of Frank Talks by Eminent Women Physicians,” capitalizing upon modern faith in science and medical expertise by featured (supposed) female European gynecologists.58 Fabricated credentials were provided so that women would feel assured that the advice came from medical authorities,59 as if she were sitting in a doctor’s office receiving guidance. Each advertisement included the image of a concerned-looking female physician who was providing a female patient with her scientific opinion on Lysol, always a glowing recommendation of the product. For instance, from Paris, a Dr. Lion insisted that “‘Lysol’ is absolutely dependable. In my own work I have seen its long record of proven effectiveness both in laboratory analysis and clinical use. . .I specify Lysol for my patients.”60

Yet to retain market dominance, Lehn & Fink not only advertised heavily; the company also diversified its advertising strategy for Lysol. The company continued to publish advertisements that capitalized upon maintaining one’s sexual attractiveness to safeguard marriages throughout the period, however, Lysol advertisers recognized that while their target consumer base was comprised of middle-class married women, not all women within this group were sexually active out of fear of becoming pregnant. Women who chose abstinence clearly did not need Lysol to protect them from pregnancy. Lysol advertisers therefore developed advertisements directed at abstinent married women. Here, copywriters advanced the argument that women were seriously harming their marriages by refraining from having sex with their husbands.83

Through this scheme, Lysol advertisers presented situations involving marital strife in which a abstinent wife has neglected her husband, instead of seeking contraception so that the couple could engage in sexual activity. The November 1928 “Whose Fault?” exemplifies how this was done. A woman, hunched over, is crying on a bed while her stern looking, seemingly frustrated husband sits by her side. The text suggests that the couple has had a fight, but that it was “[n]ot a real quarrel, but one of those baffling misunderstandings for which neither can assign any reason.”88 The text goes reveals that the “wife’s neglect” of feminine hygiene has led to this situation. Choosing abstinence instead of feminine hygiene has led to marital unhappiness.

The theme of marital discord caused by female abstinence became increasingly popular by the late 1930s, especially in the Canadian context. An advertisement entitled “She was a ‘Perfect Wife’. . .except for ONE NEGLECT,” from April 1939 emphasized that the type of women Lysol targeted were “lovely” and took care of their “looks.”89 A similar ad was published in the March 1939 Chatelaine. It was entitled “A Test for ‘Model Wives’” and was designed as a quiz for married women. The advertisement displays six boxes and inside the first five there are images of women performing tasks such as cleaning and cooking. Beneath each image, there were corresponding questions for women to ask themselves, such as “Are you a good housekeeper? Do you take care of your looks? Are your meals appetizing? Do you avoid nagging? Are you economical?”90 While it was assumed that most women would have answered “yes” to these questions, the final box, which does not contain any imagery, asked women, “Are you always careful about Feminine Hygiene?” To frighten women into using Lysol (as opposed to being abstinent), the advertisement emphasized that women who could not truthfully answer “yes” to this question would automatically “flunk” the test.91

Indeed some North American women did become pregnant using Lysol, while others experienced adverse side effects, including poisoning, vaginal burning, scarring, inflammation, and death.102 Unfortunately, these women had no legal recourse. In 1935, a Rochester man sued Lehn & Fink when his wife suffered vaginal burning,103 charging falsity in advertising. According to the plaintiff, Lysol advertisements claimed the product was safe, however, his wife’s injuries demonstrated that it was anything but. The company insisted that the injured woman was simply allergic to Lysol, and the court sided with Lehn & Fink.104 Significantly, both during and after the trial the courts did not question the intended usage of the product based on the company’s advertisements (beyond claims that Lysol was safe for use on human skin), or why the plaintiff’s wife applied the product vaginally.105

These unwanted pregnancies, injuries, and deaths speak to the slow course of consumer protection in Canada and the United States. Though medical authorities did not have the right to regulate the feminine hygiene industry, the federal governments of both counties did have official bodies and laws in place to protect consumers from dangerous products. In the United States, organizations including the Food and Drug Association (FDA henceforth) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC henceforth) played this role. Nevertheless, these organizations failed to safeguard consumers from the dangers of Lysol. As Tone shows in the US context, insofar as advertising was concerned, the Food and Drug Administration only had powers to prosecute instances of product mislabeling. Given Lysol’s use of euphemistic language, the FDA did not have sufficient grounds to prosecute. With regards to protecting consumer health, as a consumer product, Lysol technically did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Act. According to the FDA, a drug was used to cure or prevent disease, and since pregnancy was not a disease, products such as Lysol were beyond the Administration’s control.106 As for the FTC, during the interwar years, its primary focus was prosecuting unfair competition between businesses. While this included deceptive advertising, until 1938 the FTC only had the power to prevent an advertiser from making false claims if such claims created an unfair competitive environment, not if a claim was potentially injurious to a consumer.107

Due to weak consumer protection regulations in North American and feeble professional ethics among advertisers, Lehn & Fink promoted Lysol as an illegal contraceptive product throughout the interwar years, continuing this practice until the 1960s. By then, consumer protection laws had been greatly strengthened throughout North America as stringent regulations were put in place to establish consumers’ rights in the marketplace. Advertising regulation was also undergoing significant shifts; North American advertisers were beginning to establish internal standards and codes, which set out official criteria for industry self-regulation with regard to truthful and fair advertising practices.111 Yet these developments were not direct factors in bringing the advertisement of Lysol as a contraceptive to an end. Instead, it was oral contraceptives, or the pill, available in the United States from 1959 and in Canada by 1961, that eclipsed the use of over-the-counter contraceptives.112

via Selling Sexual Certainty? Advertising Lysol as a Contraceptive in the United States and Canada, 1919–1939.