Why Birth Control Dispensers Look The Way They Do

Why Birth Control Dispensers Look The Way They Do

The first working model of the now-iconic birth control pill dispenser is in the Smithsonian’s history collection. It’s built out of clear plastic, paper, and double-sided tape, held together by a snap from a child’s toy, with slices of wooden dowel standing in for pills. It was created to solve a vexing problem.

In 1961, birth control pills were packaged loose in vials, like any other medication. They also came with complex instructions on how to take them. A woman had to wait 5 days after her period started, then take one pill each day for 20 days, then stop and wait until her period started again. Confused yet?

So were David and Doris Wagner of Elmhurst, Illinois. Doris went on the pill after their fourth child was born, and soon found that both she and her husband were anxious about whether she’d remembered to take it on any given day. They tried laying out pills on a calendar, but the pills could get knocked around, which didn’t really help.

David, an engineer for the Illinois Tool Works, started thinking about combining a pill box with a calendar to make it easy to tell when pills had been consumed. By the middle of May in 1962, he had cobbled together that historic model. Two months later, he applied for a patent that included two designs: a sliding rectangular calendar and the round version inside a case. Why the round case? To protect a woman’s privacy, of course.

Another object is to provide a pill dispensing means of the character recited having a novel construction that is incorporated for convenient accessibility into a case indistinguishable from a lady’s cosmetic “compact” and adapted to be carried among the personal effects of a lady in a purse, or the like, without giving a visible clew as to matters which are of no concern to others.

Damn straight.
[US Patent 3143207, Bud et al. 1999]

Pictures: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center; US Patent 3143207