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Object Lesson

Safe sex revolution: How Berlin invented the modern condom

The seamless condom was a Berlin invention that sparked a safe-sex movement - but inventor Julius Fromm never got credit.

Photo: Museum für Verhütung und Schwangerschaftsabbruch

It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise reason that Berlin has such a longstanding reputation for sexual liberation, but it’s very likely that a man named Julius Fromm made a significant contribution. Fromm is known as the inventor of the modern condom, and the father of an unprecedented sexual revolution. There was a time when the word ‘Fromms’ was synonymous with protected sex. But his condom empire was swept up in the turmoil of the Nazi rise and fall, and his legacy was never restored.

Fromm is the father of an unprecedented sexual revolution

Julius Fromm was one of eight children, born in a time well before the agency provided by modern contraception. In 1893, when Fromm was 10, his family emigrated from the Russian town of Konin (now part of Poland) to Berlin’s majority-Jewish neighbourhood of Scheunenviertel, where they worked selling hand-rolled cigarettes. In the evenings, Fromm studied chemistry – he was particularly obsessed with rubber.

In 1906, at 23, he experienced something he would later go on to help prevent: an unplanned pregnancy. He and his lover, Selma Lieders, eloped to London and returned to Berlin married. Their son Max was born four months later. Max wouldn’t have a sibling for another five years, the same year Fromm opened his rubber goods business.

At the time, condoms were a taboo product. Made of chemically-treated sheep intestine or fish bladder, their efficiency was questionable at best. Rubber condoms were also available, but they were pieced together and had a seam. Fromm was out to make wearing a condom a gentleman’s experience. In his backyard workshop on Lippehner Straße (now Käthe-Niederkirchner-Straße) in Prenzlauer Berg’s Bötzowviertel (a building that now houses a Duo Sicilian Ice Cream), he developed a new method: he dipped a glass tube into liquid rubber solution, then vulcanised it, creating a condom that was seamless, elastic, durable and transparent. His process is still used today.

Fromm was out to make wearing a condom a gentleman’s experience

Fromm patented his method in 1914; in 1916, he put the “Fromms Act” (his product was so good that he could vouch for it with his name, he said) on the market, packaging his condoms in striped cardboard boxes. Each held three, and cost 72 pfennings. Demand exploded, in part thanks to World War I; they were especially popular with soldiers. Fromm expanded, buying factory land across the city and hiring employees to individually test each condom. Even German sex researcher Magnus Hirschfield approved. By 1926, he was making over 100,000 condoms a day; that year he produced 24 million and shipped them as far away as New Zealand.

In the meantime, the National Socialists were coming to power. Fromm, a practising Jew who had been naturalised in 1920, was well-respected in town; payments to the SA kept his family out of concentration camps and his factories open. The direction of the country worried him such that he sent his sons to Paris and London, but he stayed in Berlin to run the business, even marketing Fromms during the 1936 Olympics as the winners’ brand. But by 1938, he could no longer hold off the forces of Aryanisation. He was forced to sell his life’s work for the comically-low price of 300,000 Reichsmarks to the Nazi leader Hermann Göring’s godmother, then fled to London.

He was forced to sell his life’s work for a comically-low price.

Julius Fromm died of heart failure on May 12, 1945, just days after Germany’s surrender, allegedly overwhelmed with joy at the thought of returning to his country and work. In Berlin, several of his factories had been bombed, and his estate, which today would be worth €30 million, was auctioned off. The Fromms should have been given the remaining property back, but it was in the Soviet occupation zone and the Communists quickly took control of the company. His sons were later forced to pay to reacquire the trademark on their family name, which they licensed to another company; an iteration of that business still makes condoms, including the well-known Billy Boy brand. Today, despite helping millions wrap it up, few remember that it was Fromm who fuelled the safe sex revolution.

  • For more information, check out Geschichte Berlins in 60 Objekten by Maritta Tkalec, details.