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The Oral Contraceptive Trade in Britain

Print Marketing Collateral, 1961-1969

The historic oral contraceptive is frequently invoked as a homogenous agent of change, a static object from which new, progressive (and sometimes oppressive) sexual poses have variously emanated.

Since its official debut as a hormonal conception control system (1961 in Britain, with Searle’s ‘Conovid’), the oral contraceptive has commonly been attached to various epithetic labels, of which ‘the Pill’ has been the most enduring. Manifest in the use of this detached terminology was the drug’s frequently cited facility to separate fertility from sexual congress. Dispassionate discussion of heteronormative sex could therefore be widely contemplated through this ‘Pill’ proxy, without referring to the nuts and bolts of interpersonal relationships and actual intercourse.

However, it also could be said that this tendency to cite the ‘Pill’ as a singular, all-encompassing instrument (both at its inception and today) has abstracted individual oral contraceptives, of which there were originally many varieties, from their own micro histories as commercially traded and branded goods. This image gallery invites viewers to reconsider the dynamism of early hormonal contraceptives, and offers a précised overview of printed marketing collateral from 1961, when the first Pill was first sold in Britain, to 1969, when the Committee on Drug Safety withdrew 19 brands from its recommended list.

Images are taken from the Robert J Hetherington archive, which is held at the Wellcome Library, London. The archive comprises a substantial collection of oral contraceptive ephemera, encompassing corporate literature, print communications, and papers. Dr Hetherington spent his working life at Summerfield, a Birmingham geriatric hospital where he was employed as a ‘medical officer’, and was known as a caring and conscientious doctor who was also passionate about the rights of the elderly.  However, his main interests lay outside work, and it seems fair to describe him as a polymath; he was involved in wide ranging projects of both personal and public interest from the 1940s to the 2000s. The collecting of material related to contraception was but one of his many undertakings, and reflected his own misgivings regarding the commercial sale of ‘Orals’ to women.

In many ways, this gallery is a collaborative effort, and would not have been possible without the kind cooperation of Dr Hetherington’s daughter, Julia Larden, to whom I would like to extend my sincere thanks. I would also like to thank Amanda Engineer, of the Wellcome Library, London. I am grateful to my supervisors at Birkbeck, Dr Janet McCabe and Dr Suzannah Biernoff, and to the manufacturers who have kindly consented to making this material available online, namely Bayer AG; Eli Lilly; Pfizer; Roche; and WJ Rendell Limited. Thanks also the AHRC for sponsoring and staging this gallery.

Jessica Borge, Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, Birkbeck College, University of London

  • Image of Manual marking the UK launch of 'Conovid'
    Manual marking the UK launch of 'Conovid' about Manual marking the UK launch of 'Conovid'
  • Image of Superimposition of the newly emblematic round over a couple walking in the snow invokes the nascent role of pharmaceuticals as protectors of marital cooperation
    Superimposition of the newly emblematic round over a couple walking in the snow invokes the nascent role of pharmaceuticals as protectors of marital cooperation about Superimposition of the newly emblematic round over a couple walking in the snow invokes the nascent role of pharmaceuticals as protectors of marital cooperation
  • Image of Available through select Family Planning Association clinics from summer 1962, 'Anovlar' was heralded as the latest 'no-baby pill' in the press
    Available through select Family Planning Association clinics from summer 1962, 'Anovlar' was heralded as the latest 'no-baby pill' in the press about Available through select Family Planning Association clinics from summer 1962, 'Anovlar' was heralded as the latest 'no-baby pill' in the press
  • Image of Metronomic and horological imagery was common in early Pill advertising
    Metronomic and horological imagery was common in early Pill advertising about Metronomic and horological imagery was common in early Pill advertising
  • Image of Journal insert from 'Practitioner'
    Journal insert from 'Practitioner' about Journal insert from 'Practitioner'
  • Image of Alliance through contraception
    Alliance through contraception about Alliance through contraception
  • Image of A Somerset folksong, 'Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron' [c.1900] provides the hebdomadal basis for this mailing campaign.
    A Somerset folksong, 'Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron' [c.1900] provides the hebdomadal basis for this mailing campaign. about A Somerset folksong, 'Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron' [c.1900] provides the hebdomadal basis for this mailing campaign.
  • Image of
    "Life is not restricted, but enriched". about "Life is not restricted, but enriched".
  • Image of Phase one of this campaign suggested that a housewife's hebdomadal domestic schedule could anchor the routine self-administration of oral contraceptives.
    Phase one of this campaign suggested that a housewife's hebdomadal domestic schedule could anchor the routine self-administration of oral contraceptives. about Phase one of this campaign suggested that a housewife's hebdomadal domestic schedule could anchor the routine self-administration of oral contraceptives.
  • Image of Traditionally a manufacturer of spermicidal pessaries, Rendell proffered 'Norolen' (an 'Oral') via pseudo-pedagogic means: the discrete, quick-reference doctor's booklet, explaining different denominations of oral contraceptive.
    Traditionally a manufacturer of spermicidal pessaries, Rendell proffered 'Norolen' (an 'Oral') via pseudo-pedagogic means: the discrete, quick-reference doctor's booklet, explaining different denominations of oral contraceptive. about Traditionally a manufacturer of spermicidal pessaries, Rendell proffered 'Norolen' (an 'Oral') via pseudo-pedagogic means: the discrete, quick-reference doctor's booklet, explaining different denominations of oral contraceptive.
  • Image of The patient's first month: brochure, instructions, with glossy gatefold sleeve [pills not shown].
    The patient's first month: brochure, instructions, with glossy gatefold sleeve [pills not shown]. about The patient's first month: brochure, instructions, with glossy gatefold sleeve [pills not shown].
  • Image of
    "Now Women's Freedom is Complete" about "Now Women's Freedom is Complete"
  • Image of Sorted.
    Sorted. about Sorted.
  • Image of
    "Millions of women throughout the world accept and trust Ovulen 1mg" about "Millions of women throughout the world accept and trust Ovulen 1mg"
  • Image of Mrs Everywoman's
    Mrs Everywoman's "Passport to Freedom" about Mrs Everywoman's "Passport to Freedom"