To the archaeologists excavating the grounds at New York’s City Hall, a small, carved cylinder of bone was just another unidentified artifact in a pile of trash that included beer bottles and discarded cow bones from a large feast. Unearthed in 2010, the object was only recently identified as a vaginal syringe—or a really early version of a douche.
“At first we thought it was maybe a spice-grinder or needle case,” said Alyssa Loorya, president of Chrysalis Archaeology, the firm that oversaw the dig, part of a Department of Design and Construction rehabilitation project at City Hall. “We were stumped.”
But then, while working at a museum in Philadelphia, Lisa Geiger, one of the members of Loorya’s team, saw something similar and made the connection.
Vaginal syringes were used as an early form of birth control. Women would use them as contraceptives, to clean themselves or to treat sexually transmitted diseases. They've been found in other archaeological sites in the new world, including a 19th century brothel’s outhouse, unearthed by Boston’s Big Dig.
Team member Katrina Eichner (CAS’10) studied 30 syringe fragments excavated at the site. At first glance, she thought they were hypodermic syringes, but upon closer analysis, discovered they were vaginal syringes, used for personal cleanliness, disease prevention, treatment of disease, and termination of pregnancy.
Eichner’s research found that prostitutes at other 19th-century brothels used similar syringes to inject mercury, arsenic, and vinegar into the body to induce abortions or treat diseases.
They certainly weren't a subject for polite conversation, but they were used at many levels of society. "In New York, it's been documented that women gave them as wedding presents to each other," Geiger told DNAInfo’s Irene Plagianos. "Several later versions were found in digs near brothels in New York [near the former Five Points neighborhood] more than 15 years ago — but whether you were a prostitute, or upper class, it seems women across economic and social lines were using them."