The Vault

19th-Century Classified Ads for Abortifacients and Contraceptives 

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This compilation of classified ads, from the New York Herald and the New York Sun, shows how contraception, cures for sexually transmitted diseases, abortifacients, and abortion services were advertised in New York City during one week in December, 1841. (Curators at the Library Company of Philadelphia put together the collection of ads as part of an online exhibition, “Capitalism by Gaslight: The Shadow Economies of 19th-Century America.”)

The ads fascinate in their use of euphemism. Sexually transmitted infections are “private diseases.” Pregnancy could be a “disease peculiar to females.” An abortion, or the administration of abortifacient medicines, was not named as such, but described as the removal of an “obstruction.”

The career of Madame Restell, whose name appears several times here, shows how lucrative the shady business of contraception and abortion could be. Restell (actually Ann Lohman) was a self-christened “female physician” with no actual medical training. Karen Abbott, writing about Madame Restell on, describes Restell’s complete slate of reproductive offerings: monthly pills; preventative powders; surgical abortions; a boardinghouse that could accommodate women who needed a private place to give birth; even adoption services.

First-trimester abortion itself wasn’t made illegal until the late 19th century, but commercially-available abortifacient pills and powders were outlawed in the 1820s and 1830s, given their occasionally poisonous nature. Turpentine, tansy, and pennyroyal, often present in these remedies, toxified the woman’s body. These pills and powders sometimes produced an abortion, while certainly sickening the mother. 

Image courtesy of  Library Company of Philadelphia.