"Discrétion Absolue" - An Art Nouveau Contraceptives Catalogue

Happy Valentine's Day! I looked through our stock for anatomical hearts to share, but realised I had something even better, a French Art Nouveau contraceptives catalogue published by the Société Excelsior around 1907.

By the time this catalogue was published, contraceptives of various types already had a long history, and family planning was being championed by French syndicalists as a response to capitalist exploitation, an idea that influenced both Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger. Sanger’s insistence that she was forced to travel to Paris to get information on contraceptives was a clever bit of self-mythologising; despite the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873, resources were available in the United States. So it's interesting to note that the catalogue’s title page advertises “Pessaires Américains”, showing that the exoticising of contraception travelled in both directions across the Atlantic.

I've been unable to find out much about the catalogue's publisher, Société Excelsior, other than that they may have been the first firm to offer a female condom, which is advertised on page 17 (Angèle, Histoire de la Contraception, p. 64):

The catalogue also advertises diaphragms (the above-mentioned "Pessaires Américains," also recently invented):

There are two illustrations of the female reproductive system, the one on the right showing the correct placement of a diaphragm.

Also on offer are sponges:

...belts for sanitary napkins:

...artificial breasts:

...douches and enemas, lubricant ("pommade virginale"), antiseptic creams, and novelties like chastity belts:

... and intimate perfume:

All with the assurance of "discrétion absolue"!

Catalogues of this type, which were both fragile and potentially embarrassing, are correspondingly rare. We cannot locate any library or auction copies with this particularly title, and there is only one other contraceptives catalogue by the same publisher listed in WorldCat, at the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Santé, Paris.


Laura Massey
Laura Massey

Author

Alembic founder Laura Massey holds a bachelor's degree in the history of science from Georgia Tech and a master's in book history (focusing on medieval and early modern scientific and medical books,) from the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. She has worked as a cataloguer, bookseller, and blogger in libraries and bookshops in the United States and Britain.