America’s First Birth Control Clinic

In 1916, contraceptives and information about them were considered obscene, and as such it was illegal to send them through the postal system. Their mere existence was not illegal, but the "obscene" label meant that upstanding citizens wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole -at least publicly. That meant that women who didn’t have the proper connections: the poor, the uneducated, and those who didn’t speak English had no access to any kind of contraceptive. Margaret Sanger made her career out of trying to bring birth control to the masses. In fact, she was the one who coined the term "birth control." Part of her campaign was the establishment of the first family planning clinic the US, in Brooklyn.

Finally, Sanger and her team were able to rent out a storefront at 46 Amboy Street for $50 a month, and the nation’s first birth control clinic was born. Consisting of just two rooms and a spot outside where mothers could leave their carriages, the tiny facility was perfect for their needs. The patients could wait in the outer room while consultations were held in the inner room. Though Sanger was not able to find a doctor willing to work at the clinic, an examination table was put in the back room, just in case they ever could find a willing physician.

Thousands of fliers were printed, calling for mothers who wanted to learn about contraceptives. “DO NOT KILL, DO NOT TAKE LIFE, BUT PREVENT,” the leaflets proclaimed. They were printed in English, Yiddish, and Italian, and were stuffed into as many mail slots and pedestrians' hands as possible. Sanger was well aware of the legal trouble her new clinic could, and likely would, get her into. Far from operating in secret, she went so far as to mail a letter to the District Attorney of Brooklyn, letting him know that she would be distributing contraceptive information, and included the clinic’s address.

Having done everything she could to get the word out both to the women who needed to take advantage of the clinic and the lawmakers that needed to see it in action, Sanger and her associates opened the doors of their clinic on October 16, 1916. In her autobiography, Sanger said she didn’t know if anyone would show up, due to fear or disinterest, but she was relieved to find that when they opened the doors, there was already a line of some 150 people waiting to be treated. America's first birth control clinic was in business.

It didn’t last long. Read the story of how the clinic came to be, and what happened after it opened, at Atlas Obscura.

(Image source: The Library of Congress)

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