Biographies & Memoirs



THERE IS ONLY ONE REMAINING MEMBER of the Fromm family who knew Julius Fromm well—and she did not like him. This person is Ruth Fromm, born in Berlin in 1919, a daughter of Julius’s older brother Salomon. Diminutive and delicate at the age of eighty-seven, and ebullient despite her arthritis, she lives in Manhattan and speaks a wonderfully old-fashioned Berlin-tinged German. Of course she often switches back to English, and then, out of nowhere, punctuates descriptions of her diet and the dangers of bird flu with a high-pitched giggle. Although she never had children, she is the glue that binds the Fromm family—a family “scattered all over the planet.”

Ruth knows a great many stories about the living and the deceased relatives in Johannesburg, Berlin, Paris, Munich, and London. She enjoys chatting about Aunt Helene, a merry widow, and the most high-spirited of Julius Fromm’s seven siblings. Before the war, Helene ran an optician’s shop in Berlin. Indulging in a bit of word play with the family name Fromm, which in German means “pious,” and throwing in a reference to the title of a famous German poem by Wilhelm Busch, Ruth declares that this aunt was anything but a “pious Helene” (fromme Helene): “She knew how to deal with men.”

There is one member of the family Ruth does not want to speak about: Uncle Julius. She does not have a single picture of him in her photo collection. It feels as though you have to grill her to unearth any information about him. She eventually volunteers that he was a cold individual, in marked contrast to her many other kindhearted uncles and aunts. He was fixated on his business, on money, on the company. “There is nothing more to be said about him.” We will come back to the reasons why Ruth still bears a grudge, but there is certainly a great deal more to be said about Julius Fromm.

A rosier view, albeit along similar lines, was offered in a March 1933 public tribute to Julius Fromm on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, a scant few weeks after the Nazis came to power in Germany. This tribute appeared in the drugstore trade journal Der Drogenhändler: “It has taken him exceedingly intense, single-minded devotion to his work to get to where he is today. We all pay tribute to his impressive and brilliant lifetime achievements. The untimely death of his father drove him to seek his own way at an early age, and to give his life a meaning and a direction of his own design.” He was the kind of businessman, the tribute went on to say, who understood the importance of “keeping the company permanently under his control,” and the firm’s “colossal modern buildings” conveyed a sense of “the international status that German workplaces enjoy.” “Ample publicity, exceptional customer service, and, above all, consistent high quality have earned the ‘Fromms Act’ brand the complete trust and satisfaction of customers.”1

A more permissive attitude toward sexuality had begun to develop during World War I, and grew more pronounced during the turbulent early years of the Weimar Republic. Symptomatic of a newfound tolerance for physical intimacy was the dance mania that swept through every social class in Germany. Even the 1919 memorial service for the murdered communist Karl Liebknecht was followed by a “tea dance.” As part of a new trend in science, institutes outside the walls of academe founded the modern field of sexology. The historian Walter Laqueur’s book on this era describes a “new sex wave” that extended “to nude shows and hard-core pornography.” Berlin began to copy Paris; small French-style nightclubs shot up out of nowhere, and erotic pulp fiction was all the rage, with topics including nights in a harem, women and whips, courtesans’ erotic apprenticeships, luscious ladies, boys’ love letters, gynecologists’ diaries, lesbian women (“feminine eroticism swinging the other way”), and vicissitudes in the garden of love.

Julius Fromm, late 1920s

The Reich Business Machine Dealers’ Association held a beauty contest for stenographers, and “Berlin’s latest attraction” debuted in the early 1930s: a sexology bookshop on Wittenbergplatz. A protest pamphlet was quick to report: “The word ‘sexual,’ in huge blue-and-silver Roman-style letters, stares passersby in the face. All day long, people crowd around the display windows.” This “prominent feature of the shop” quickly resulted in “repeated visits by the police.” In December 1932, a court sentenced the owner to eight months for “distributing lewd literature.”2

It was at this time that Julius Fromm was advertising his new “select brand.” While this innovative contraceptive device, sheerer and less intrusive than earlier products of its kind, had been developed for personal use, it had far-reaching consequences for the fabric of society as a whole. The condoms helped to eliminate the traditional unity of sexuality and reproduction, and facilitated promiscuity, sexual experimentation, and eroticism liberated from the confines of everyday family life.

Consequently, the chairman of the Fulda Bishops’ Conference, Adolf Cardinal Bertram, launched an attack on this contraceptive device in 1921, calling it “an incentive to fornicate.” Condom advertising, he inveighed, would “obfuscate or obliterate the moral precepts of our nation,” and result in “a plummeting birthrate” and “the loss of the noblest strength of our nation.” Magnus Hirschfeld, one of the founders of modern sexology, saw the matter quite differently, and expressed his great admiration for Fromms Act: “This is a leading company in Berlin; day after day, no fewer than 144,000 prophylactic devices are produced, and even then the company can barely keep up with the demand for this product.”

Magnus Hirschfeld emphasized the menace posed by venereal diseases—syphilis in particular—and expounded on all the misery, “the diseases and germs [that had been] ‘nipped in the bud’ by these products.” Few companies had had “such a profound impact on human sexuality and social interaction” as Fromms Act, the legendary factory with the proud (if somewhat ambiguous) name. After taking a tour of Fromm’s factory in 1926, Hirschfeld concluded: “To the best of my knowledge and principles, and in the light of my practical experience and theoretical deliberations, the prophylactics distributed under the Fromms Act label optimally fulfill all prerequisites for a suitable protective and preventive prophylactic device.”

A modest dip in the birthrate in Germany was recorded beginning in 1875. This decline accelerated rapidly after the turn of the century, and was generally attributed to the “rationalization of sexual life,” a phrase coined by the economist Julius Wolf in a 1912 study bearing that title. Wolf concluded that “increased awareness of birth control methods, improved technological ‘advancement,’ and greater accessibility to birth control have provided considerable momentum for the plummeting birth rate.”

Advertisement in a pharmaceutical trade journal, 1930

An increasing number of Germans in urban areas began moving to a “two-child system” (and after World War I even to a “one-child system”)—to the dismay not only of Catholic dignitaries, but also of many demographers and politicians. This shift was soon evident in rural areas as well. The German Jews were at the forefront of the new demographic pattern. The 1927 edition of the Jewish Lexicon reported: “Despite a 29 percent increase in marriages over the last 50 years, the number of births in this period has fallen by over 43 percent.” Maintaining the Jewish population of Berlin at the same level would require “a constant influx of Jewish people from outside the city.”3

In the early 1930s, an alliance formed between National Socialists bent on “maintaining the nation’s strength into the next generation” and churchgoing fundamentalists committed to chastity and marital fidelity. Kurt Gerstein became the strident voice of this motley collaboration. A dedicated member of the Confessing Church, a Christian resistance movement in Nazi Germany, who joined the Waffen-SS and attained the rank of Obersturmführer, he began spying on Nazi operations, and as early as August 1942 sent the Swedes a highly detailed report about the death camps of Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Majdanek, accompanied by a request to relay this information about these murders to the Allies. Just a few years prior, though, in 1936, Gerstein had issued an anti-Semitic statement on the need to protect minors, which included the following remark about condom advertisements: “One need look no further than the brand name ‘Primeros’ (meaning ‘first love’) to grasp the skulduggery of this disgraceful business cooked up by the Jews… Furthermore, there should be a ban on the sale of these devices in vending machines, which are doing a brisk business. These machines, which have sealed the fate of many a curious young person, were also introduced in Germany by a Jewish company.” Incidentally, Primeros condoms were manufactured by a Saxon-Bohemian company named Emil Schuran.

In 1928, after protracted opposition, Julius Fromm had finally succeeded in his ongoing efforts to install the first condom vending machines. He promoted his product with the slogan: “Men, Protect Your Health.” The Social Democratic minister of justice, Gustav Radbruch, had prohibited wording that included any reference to sexual pleasure or pregnancy prevention. Privy Councillor Martin Fassbender, a representative of the Center Party in the Prussian parliament, warned that vending machines of this sort would inundate “young people [with] erotic stimuli.”

In 1936 Gerstein submitted a written statement in a futile attempt to avoid expulsion from the Nazi Party and consequent dismissal from civil service. This statement stressed his outstanding service on the moral front: “Furthermore, I would like to point out that I have spent years fighting against Jewish-Bolshevist attacks on the power of the German people… The minister of the interior is in possession of files relating to my years of attacks on Fromms Act and Primeros, those companies owned by the disgraceful Jewish-Galician swine, which distributed millions of free samples to very young adolescents.”

During the years of the Weimar Republic, Gerstein and his comrades-in-arms had formed a small grassroots organization with a long name, the Reichsschundkampfstelle der evangelischen Jungmännerbünde Deutschlands (Reich Anti-Smut Campaign Bureau of Protestant Young Men’s Associations of Germany). This organization published a leaflet called “Der Schundkampf” (“The Fight Against Smut”), aimed at “banning advertisements for risqué books, sex education pamphlets, condom products, and other health-related articles” and items of that nature, and “stricter monitoring of advertisements for massage parlors and for institutes teaching foreign languages.” A similar campaign was conducted by the Volkswartbund (People’s Surveillance League), which described itself as “a Catholic association to fight public displays of lewdness.”

In 1925 the Protestant Reichsschundkampfstelle came out with a set of “Ten Commandments for Combating Licentiousness.” The third “commandment” stipulated: “Do not support any Jewish or yellow-press publications.” On May 10, 1933, this group sprang into action at the Berlin book burnings by setting aflame books it considered lewd: “While students from the Berlin School for Physical Education purged the library of the Magnus Hirschfeld Institute, the Protestant Schundkämpfer purged about ten municipal and seventy private libraries in a single day. There was a huge yield. It took two trucks to transport some 1,212 books (which included the worst kind of filth) to Opernplatz for the solemn conflagration. The fire set by the students is just the beginning of this purge. We will systematically continue this clean-up effort.” Buoyed by their own success in this enterprise, and by the new political opportunities that lay ahead, the devoted activists reported that “when Dr. Goebbels gave the signal to attack, Protestant Schundkämpfer were mobilized in more than forty German cities to cleanse public and private libraries.”4

In 1914, when Julius Fromm began manufacturing condoms in Wilhelmine Germany, men were quite bashful about asking for prophylactics at the barber shop or the drugstore. Their source was generally shrouded in mystery, and the quality dubious. But demand grew quickly. As the number of patients suffering from incurable syphilis continued to rise, the doctors sounded the alarm and sought to popularize condoms with epidemiological arguments. In 1913, when the Reichstag debated a law to restrict “commerce pertaining to birth control methods,” the German Association for Obstetrics and Gynecology was horrified. “In our view,” wrote five prominent gynecologists in Berlin, “neither a prohibition nor even a mere limitation of the distribution of condoms can be considered, because they promote good health above and beyond their contraceptive purpose.” They went on to argue that a substantial increase in venereal disease would inevitably follow if obtaining this protective device was made more difficult. The experts did agree, though, that “public displays” of contraceptive devices ought to be outlawed.

In 1912 the Royal Prussian Ministry of the Interior investigated the causes of the decline in the birthrate and determined that “town and country” were “virtually inundated with advertising, price lists, and such, promoting items described as ‘rubber goods,’ ‘prophylactics,’ ‘sanitary products,’ etc… time and again emphasizing the ‘economic and health drawbacks that came with having too many children’ and the need to restrict the number of offspring ‘to provide better education for the smaller number of children.’” Engaged couples and newlyweds were being targeted “systematically” to receive brochures conveying the message that modern methods could help them “structure at least the first few years of marriage as pleasantly as possible.” This study also revealed that unmarried people were also being sent this kind of advertising, often in the guise of “medical or scientific” information. Moreover, these manufacturers were playing up “the harmlessness of extramarital sex.” The ministry officials concluded that once people grew accustomed to using contraceptive devices, they would be “inclined to use them in marriage.”5

These concerns on the part of the Ministry of the Interior notwithstanding, the condom gained popularity after World War I began, not only in Germany, but throughout Europe and the United States. Venereal disease epidemics had been causing problems for army leadership even in peacetime, and during this period of modern mass warfare, conventional morality loosened and infection rates shot up. In the German infantry, the number of soldiers infected with syphilis or gonorrhea increased by 25 percent, and in the German occupying forces the rate rose by 100 percent.

German “battlefield brothel” for officers in World War I

The leadership of all armies involved in the war extolled abstinence as a soldierly virtue while acknowledging the reality of the situation. In order to maintain some control over prostitution, they set up soldiers’ brothels. Behind the front lines, existing establishments were often taken over and expanded. Near the main battlegrounds, medical service personnel improvised basic field brothels. Many of these dreary facilities made the use of condoms mandatory. A German military doctor in the Warsaw area who was given orders to open a “brothel for the members of formations that came marching through” reported in his memoirs: “The entry fee for officers was three marks; for soldiers, one mark. The price included a condom and a voucher to hand to the girl.”

Soldiers’ brothel in Galicia

In most cases the brothels for officers were kept strictly separate from those for the rank and file. The upscale bordellos featured signs announcing: “Entry forbidden to dogs and enlisted men!” Ordinary soldiers were required first to display their genitals to Neumann, the legendary medical corporal, and then to register, before joining one of the lines in front of the brothels for enlisted men. The officers were spared any inspection, and consequently the percentage of men infected with venereal disease was markedly higher in this group. Before long there was a shortage of condoms. It is no coincidence that 1916 was the year that Fromms Act began its ascent as a modern industrial enterprise.

After the war, many patients told Max Marcuse, a sexologist in Berlin, that they had become more prudent while in the army. Men from the country in particular used condoms for the first time in their lives when they became soldiers. The idea was to prevent venereal disease, and in the process they learned about family planning. Public health officials at the Ministry of the Interior began predicting as early as 1916: “After the war, returning soldiers and other individuals, faced with uncertainty about the economic situation, will be even more inclined to use contraceptive devices, thereby preventing a rise in the number of children.” In the Concise Dictionary of Sexology Marcuse edited in 1923, the “widely available” condom was listed as “the safest contraceptive device, relatively speaking,” and the dictionary claimed it ought to be considered “virtually harmless for men and women.”6

The Reichstag had been considering passage of a law to combat venereal disease since 1916. After much debate, the law, which would permit the use of advertising for condoms, was slated to go into effect on October 1, 1923. At the eleventh hour, however, conservative forces were able to postpone its promulgation in the Reichsgesetzblatt (“Reich Law Gazette”) until February 18, 1927, and to add restrictions to paragraph 11—the crux of the law—to prohibit any public advertising of condoms. A violation of this rule could result in up to six months’ imprisonment. The only exception was advertising in professional journals intended for readers “officially permitted to do business involving these devices or objects.” On the other hand, devices “that serve to prevent venereal diseases” could be “displayed and promoted.” The condom fell into both categories—it was a contraceptive and a protective device.

A small advertisement in a popular magazine reading “Married couples, sanitary items, free price list!” was thus considered legally suspect even in the Weimar Republic. The German Central Police Bureau to Stem the Circulation of Lewd Pictures, Literature, and Advertisements kept an eagle eye on condom advertising to ensure that it did not become “intrusive” to the public. This special agency, which had national jurisdiction, was located at Magazinerstrasse 3–5 in Berlin, the very building where the East German State Security Service (Stasi) would later pursue its own kind of “clean living” campaign, this time of a political nature, for it was here that the Stasi compiled the notorious “Brown Book” listing “War and Nazi Criminals in West Germany.”

In view of the legal situation, condom advertising had to focus solely on protection against venereal disease. The contraceptive function was not mentioned, since the law considered language on that subject a “public incitement to indecency,” and made it punishable with a prison sentence. Consequently, the advertisement carried only this vague wording: “Fromms Act—Against Infection. Available at All Specialty Stores.”7 Julius Fromm waited until 1932 to promote the “important advantages” of his products, and even then he chose a trade journal for pharmacists:

1. Our select brand, Fromms Act, the top-selling brand in Germany, is not just labeled transparent, but truly is transparent—a feature that demanding customers value.

2. Our select brand, Fromms Act, has been dipped evenly and is guaranteed to have been tested twice to assure reliability.

3. Our select brand, Fromms Act, has no unpleasant smell, and is therefore not distracting.

4. Our select brand, Fromms Act, does not obstruct sensation; its silky quality does not feel intrusive.

The advertisement also assured readers that the powder used as a lubricant had been “field tested,” and contained no “harsh or irritating substances.” Shortly before that, the company had found it necessary to take out another large advertisement announcing: “Fromms Act—Advertising Permitted!” Even so, pharmacists were advised: “In the unlikely event that you experience difficulties with the authorities, we ask you to let us know as soon as possible so that we may offer you advice and assistance.”8

Conditions in the Weimar Republic further destabilized traditional moral strictures. Urbanization, the social mobility that accompanies industrial society, a growing interest in pursuing higher education, and the emancipation of women all fostered a desire not to leave the number of offspring to nature. Then again, prudery and ignorance were still very much in evidence, and for decades to come, Fromms Act packages contained folded inserts that pharmacy customers could push across the counter without needing to state what they wished to purchase. The inserts contained this text: “Please hand me a 3-pack of Fromms’ condoms discreetly.”

Fromm worked tirelessly to improve what is known in the business as “rubber hollow bodies,” and developed new variants that offered no additional health benefits, but enhanced pleasure. In 1927, for example, he patented a process for making patterned condoms. The documentation for this patent explains that “the patterned surface can be given any form, such as stripes and geometric shapes, in one or in several colors.”

The Haller Girls at the Berlin Wintergarten, 1926

Moreover, the ever-resourceful condom manufacturer wrote on his package inserts: “In addition to standard sizes we also supply a variety of additional widths by request. Let your supplier know about any special requirements, and the supplier will place the appropriate order with us.” A boxed notice reminded customers: “Common decency dictates that you not carelessly toss away our prophylactics and packaging after use, or else they will be found lying on streets, city squares, or walkways. Keep our printed matter away from the eyes of minors. It is not intended for them.”9

By the end of the 1920s, Fromm’s products were so popular that beer hall cabarettists and piano-bar comedians in Berlin were incorporating Fromms Act condoms into their routines, singing lines like “Fromms with your girl—give it a whirl,” “When the urge grabs you, grab Fromms Act,” and “Just like a Fromm—I’m ready to come.” Fromm had made it. He did not have to pitch his condoms. Customers read the name and got the picture.

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