Condom Kaiser: The tragic fate of inventor Julius Fromm
Fromms Act - the world's first brand-name latex condom
VIRTUALLY EVERYBODY USES THEM from time to time, but few people are aware of the uplifting and ultimately heart-breaking story that lies behind the world’s most widespread – if not always most loved – contraceptive device: the seamless latex condom.
A new book is about to correct this shortcoming in the English-speaking world. Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis by historian Götz Aly and Spiegel editor Michael Sontheimer is scheduled to appear in American bookshops later this month (the original German-language version appeared in 2007). Aly and Sontheimer have written not just a biography of a man and his revolutionary creation, but also of an era: the rise of a new Jewish middle class in central Europe around 1900 and its subsequent “Aryanization” and extermination at the hands of the Nazi Party.
Julius Fromm was born in 1883 as Israel From to a poor eastern Jewish family in the Polish shtetl of Konin, which at that time belonged to the Russian Empire. A decade later the family of eight fled the poverty and hopelessness of anti-Semitic Russia to Germany’s boomtown capital, Berlin. There the family settled in the “Scheunenviertel,” the city’s predominantly Jewish immigrant slum near Alexanderplatz, where they eked out an existence rolling cigarettes at home and selling them in local bars. Since large-scale factories were putting the hand-made cigarette out of business, young Julius took chemistry classes in night school and dreamed of better times. In 1906 he married his pregnant fiancée, who would go on to bear him three sons. It is conceivable that this awkward experience gave him the idea that would transform sex forever.
Fromm’s father died already in 1898, and his mother followed him to the grave in 1912. Now Israel took over as head of the family. That same year he set up a one-man workshop in the Berlin workers’ district of Prenzlauer Berg, where he manufactured perfume and rubber items. For months he experimented with a new kind of condom for this severely overpopulated city. (In those days the squalid Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood had the highest population density of any urban area on earth.) Aly and Sontheimer describe the fruit of Fromm’s efforts as “a revolution in bed,” which – like the birth control pill almost five decades later – “reliably separated lust and love from reproduction.”
"The finest!" Ad for Fromm's sideline of rubber sponges (1920s)
The right product at the right time
Fromm did not invent the condom as such. Condoms are as old as civilization itself. Silk, velvet, fish bladders, goat guts, and pig intestines have all been used over the centuries with greater and lesser degrees of dependability and comfort. In 1855 the American inventor Charles Goodyear had come up with a reusable condom made of vulcanized rubber. It was thick and smelly and had a seam running down one side, rather like a bicycle inner tube. The rubber condoms of Fromm’s day were not much better. They consisted of rubber strips wrapped around molds and dipped in a solution to cement them shut. Fromm had a better idea. He fashioned phallic glass molds, dipped them into a natural rubber solution, and then vulcanized them in an oven, creating thin and transparent rubber sheaths with a nipple on the end. He then hand-rolled and packaged them for sale in drug stores (all those years rolling cigarettes finally came in handy). He patented his invention in 1916 as “Fromms Act.”
Heinrich Zille, "Soldier and Whore" (undated)
A sexual revolution was already underway in Europe. During World War I, venereal diseases were almost as great a threat as enemy bullets. The German army had already made condom use mandatory in government-run military brothels. In one supervised Warsaw whorehouse, for instance, officers were charged three marks admission and enlisted men one. For this price they were each supplied with a condom and also a coupon that they had to present to their respective sex worker before matters could proceed. Fromm’s handy invention became spectacularly popular among an entire generation of young men and working women.
In Aly’s and Sontheimer’s words, “Fromms Act” was “the right product at the right time.” By 1919 his little factory registered a daily production of 150,000 “Fromms,” as they were already being called. Already in the early 1920s he was marketing them across Europe. He introduced his first condom vending machine in 1928. The new sexual openness of the “Golden Twenties” made it possible to sell condoms freely at drugstores and advertise them on posters, even though many people were still embarrassed about asking for them over the counter. Fromm took notice of this unease and included a handy slip of paper in each three-pack printed with the words: “Please discreetly hand me a packet of three Fromm’s Act.”
Julius Fromm (1883-1945)
But he encountered resistance as well, particularly from the churches. The authorities of the Weimar Republic showed greater leniency, but insisted that he market his product only as a prophylactic, i.e. as an anti-disease measure, and not as a contraceptive. Germany had lost two million soldiers and 700,000 civilians in the war, and back alley abortions were destroying another generation of citizens in those troubled times. Some bishops and government officials were afraid condoms would finish the Germans off for good. But Fromms Act hardly needed advertising anyway. By now the name “Fromms” was already synonymous with “condom.”
“Julius” Fromm – the very essence of the Jewish self-made man – bought himself a luxury villa in 1919 and was soon driving Berlin’s first Cadillac. By the late twenties the company maintained factories in several European countries and was producing fifty million condoms a year. In 1931 Fromm expanded from the modern factory in Berlin-Friedrichshagen he had built nine years earlier to a large, state-of-the-art facility he ordered for himself in the suburb of Köpenick. Its Jewish star architects, Arthur Korn and Siegfried Weitzman, designed it in the “Neue Sachlichkeit” style of the Bauhaus era. Its shell was light and transparent and symbolized the product being manufactured inside.
The modern Fromms factory in Berlin-Köpenick
When the Nazis seized power in 1933, Julius Fromm was confident they would not last long. In any case, like most assimilated Jews he was a loyal patriot and had no fundamental quarrel with the regime. He did everything he could to appease the country’s new rulers, and even hung a Hitler portrait and a Swastika banner in his factory canteen. He ordered his two Berlin factory directors to join the Nazi party. During the 1936 Summer Olympics he handed out free public transit maps in cooperation with Goebbels’s propaganda ministry. As raw materials grew scarce, he cooperated with the IG Farben conglomerate to develop synthetic rubber for his condoms. He also continued to improve his product. In order to keep the condoms from sticking and to promote their “rectal and vaginal use,” Fromm began dusting his products with talcum powder. (Most East German condoms were still being manufactured this way until 1989.) Today's moist condoms were a post-war invention.
The Fromms dipping room with glass molds
But once the Olympics were over, the political tide started turning against the man from the shtetl. Loyal and successful Julius Fromm was just the kind of Jew the Nazis loved to hate. With his Germanized name and aristocratic lifestyle, he provided a perfect outlet for the limitless hypocrisy, social envy, and pure greed that were the hallmarks of the Nazi system. The Nazis now joined forces with the Christian right to put him out of business once and for all. The anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer began a witch hunt against “the Jewish swine Fromm” and his “immoral” product. In 1938 Hermann Göring personally supervised the “Aryanization” of Fromm’s company, which he transferred into the possession of his fabulously wealthy godmother, Baroness Elisabeth von Epenstein-Mauternburg. She made a killing off it during the war. (In gratitude she in turn presented her godson with two medieval castles.) Fromm was paid only a tenth of the firm’s estimated value. His assets - worth some thirty million Euros in today’s money - ended up in the hands of the Nazi state. His confiscated villa was used as a "Jew house" until 1943. Once all the displaced Jews seeking refuge there had been murdered, the state awarded it to a highly decorated Wehrmacht officer.
"Reichsmarschall" Hermann Göring
Fromm was ruined. All of his possessions had been stolen and auctioned off to the public. He and his wife fled to exile in London. They had sent their sons ahead years before. Two of Fromm’s siblings remained behind. His sister and her family were sent to Auschwitz to be gassed. His brother miraculously survived the war in Berlin.
Fromm himself died on May 12, 1945, just four days following the collapse of the Nazi regime. He was sixty-two years old. He had been planning to return to Germany and regain control of his property. But now his life’s work was lost. The large plant in Köpenick had fallen victim to Allied bombing. The Soviets confiscated the Friedrichshagen plant and soon had it up and running again, turning out millions of condoms for the use of the occupying Red Army. Under normal conditions, the family should have received their property back. But some of Fromm’s Nazi employees cooperated with East German communist officials and officially denounced their boss as a “Jewish owner” and a “capitalist exploiter type [with an] anti-social, anti-worker, and pro-Nazi attitude.” They depicted his various social and worker-friendly programs in the Köpenick factory as “active support of Nazi propaganda.” This made Julius Fromm into a de facto “war criminal” and “Nazi activist,” leading to a second “Aryanization” of his property. (The factory continued to produce rubber products as a state-owned firm into the 1990s, although the East German “Mondo” condom was later manufactured at a plant in Erfurt.)
In 1947, Julius’s second son Herbert bought the trademark back from one of Göring’s cousins at the 1938 sales price and began once more to manufacture condoms under license in West Germany. This earned a modest income for the family until the rights expired twenty-five years later. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, all three sons and/or their widows received compensation for the lost property in East Berlin amounting to two percent of the original value.
The Fromms trademark remained in Western hands and the French-owned MAPA Corporation now produces “Fromms FF” by the millions in Zeven, a small town located between Hamburg and Bremen. The firm also produces the popular brands Billy Boy and Blausiegel. Their website includes no reference to the fate of Julius Fromm.
Today a great deal is known about the Jewish history of large German companies such as Deutsche Bank or the massive mail-order and travel company Neckermann, which was founded on an Aryanized Jewish mail-order business once belonging to singer Billy Joel’s grandfather. But we still know virtually nothing about middle-size companies like Fromms and the perhaps 20,000 small-scale Jewish firms and one-man operations in Berlin alone that were wiped out along with their owners during Nazi rule. The fate of the Fromm family just goes to show how history can come alive in the most ordinary of activities – even in the unrolling of a lowly condom.