Rubber Shortages, Public Health, and Public Protest in WWII Britain

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 11:10 AM
Room 402 (Colorado Convention Center)
Sandra Trudgen Dawson, Northern Illinois University
By 1942, Britain faced a critical shortage of rubber. To ensure wartime rubber supplies for consumers and essential industries, the government stopped manufacturing what it considered non-essential rubber consumer products:  condoms, contraceptive diaphragms and teats for infant feeding bottles. Shortly after, new cases of venereal diseases doubled among servicemen and tripled among civilians; unwanted pregnancies skyrocketed and newspapers reported that Britain’s babies were not being fed appropriately. While Medical officers discussed the public health crisis and opened VD clinics to deal with the new cases of gonorrhoea and syphilis, moralists deplored the rise in extra-marital sexual activity created by the social dislocations of wartime; reluctant mothers placed unwanted children in orphanages and the press clamored successfully to restart the production of rubber teats.

The increase in VD and unwanted pregnancies was viewed by contemporaries and subsequent scholars as largely the result of the influx of millions of Colonial and American servicemen to Britain. Little attention, however, has been paid to the role rubber shortages made to both the spread of disease and unplanned pregnancies. While historians of sexuality point to the wartime increase in sexual activity, little attention has been given to the shortages of rubber contraceptives in wartime that may have skewed the picture. This paper argues that the shortages of rubber contraceptives as well as the cessation of manufacture in 1942 created a public health crisis both on the home front and the battle front. The reactions and the response of the government suggests a complex relationship between attitudes towards sexuality, reproduction, public health and the state. While the consumer demand for rubber teats to feed infants who were the result of sexual activity resulted in a change of manufacturing policy, the increase in unwanted pregnancies and new cases of VD, also the result of sexual activity, did not.

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