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
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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.