A Quick Tour of the Smithsonian's Collection of Oral Contraceptives

By Amanda Chau

Only a few weeks into my internship I learned that the fastest way to create awkward silence, where even the cricket chokes, is by stating with the most serious face that I can muster, "Yes, I'm cataloging birth control pills at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History." The most common response I get is, "Wait, you're on birth control?" After correcting him/her, I then perk up and say enthusiastically, "You know, it was recently the 50th anniversary of the Pill. Big stuff!" But enthusiasm can also lead to misunderstanding. On one occasion, while I was meticulously documenting the oral contraceptives exhibited in the museum onto a clipboard, a visitor laughed and took a photo of me -- probably supposing that I was eagerly jotting down some pointers.

As an intern in the division of medicine and science, I'm learning how oral contraceptives have impacted American society: from family life to economics, health, religion, and more. I find it particularly interesting to observe changes over time in active ingredients and their quantities, as well as the attendant side effects. I feel honored to continue the work of a former curator, Pat Gossel, who died of cancer a few years ago.

Here are a few objects in the collection that are personal favorites:

1-6a00e553a80e1088340120a88d722d970b-800wi.jpg

Ortho-Novum SQ Dialpak 20, 1970. Simple and brilliant design. Several items in the collection are set up similarly. There is a clear plastic cover over the tablets; the user rotates the cover clockwise to dispense a tablet. The inside rim is scalloped, which allows the small inner wheel, marked with the seven days of the week, to rotate. Only the day in which the pill should be taken has a small magnifying glass to read it, while the other days have a textured opaque cover over them. Originally, there were 20 pills in a pack containing active ingredients (usually norethindrone and ethinyl estadiol, or levonorgestrel and ethinyl estradriol), sometimes with variations in the formula. Pills with different formulas are expressed with different colors. Later brands offer 21 pills with active ingredients and seven inert (sometimes iron) pills to coincide with days in a month, so that one does not forget to take the pill routinely.

2-6a00e553a80e10883401287790174a970c-800wi.jpg

Tri-Levlen 28, 1987. Aside from its intense fireproof-looking slidecase, the logo is what gets me the most. It might look to you like a graphic hand grabbing/snatching an egg. Oh, if only it were true. After cocking my head to the side, I came to the conclusion that it was, in fact, intended to be an abstract depiction of a fallopian tube releasing an egg.

3-6a00e553a80e108834012877902384970c-800wi.jpg

Desogen, 1993. The Remember Me Compliance Kit. On the front of the box it states, "A unique gift package for you...." Unique indeed, and that ellipsis could not be more perfectly suspenseful for what awaits.... Inside, the instructions state in large print:

If you miss a pill you could get pregnant!
Remembering is as easy as 1-2-3...
Brush your teeth
Wash your face
Take your pill...

And what do you know? Your oral contraceptives not only come with the product, but it also comes with a handy toothbrush and a bar of soap.

4-6a00e553a80e1088340120a88d8164970b-800wi.jpg

5-6a00e553a80e1088340120a88d81f7970b-800wi.jpg

Ortho Personal Pak, 2000. These eco-friendly dialpaks differ from earlier versions in that they are reusable compact dispensers; only the blister pack ring needs to be changed. What I like about this type is that it comes in a variety of colors and designs to suit any woman's taste: from girly amethyst floral, to plain garnet and sheek onyx.

6-6a00e553a80e10883401310fb03792970c-800wi.jpg

These are just a few examples from this fascinating collection. You can find more examples of Pill package design from the museum's collections on the PBS website dedicated to the subject. I can't wait to tell people: "I've just finished cataloging oral contraceptives ... on to condoms!" Seriously.


This post also appears on the Smithsonian's O Say Can You See? blog, an Atlantic partner site.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/02/a-quick-tour-of-the-smithsonians-collection-of-oral-contraceptives/252966/