Acetic acid

Acetic acid

In Brief

When Stephen, in Proteus, comically imagines a Casanova rising "from the bed of his wife's lover's wife," he puzzlingly adds that "the kerchiefed housewife is astir, a saucer of acetic acid in her hands." Acetic acid is the chief component of vinegar, and vinegar is sometimes used for household cleaning, so this clause could refer to morning chores. But the housewife is more likely getting out of bed to perform a contraceptive douche.

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Gifford halfheartedly asks whether the saucer of vinegar may be intended "For cleaning stone or marble surfaces?" Other published commentators (Kiberd, Johnson, Slote) do not repeat his tentative opinion, but rather than offer more convincing readings they simply ignore the puzzling detail. However, two Iranian correspondents, Iman Fani and Nariman Tavakoli, have independently written to me to propose something better: lovers without access to more reliable forms of birth control methods have long used acidic liquids like vinegar and lemon juice for their supposed spermicidal effects.

The actual 18th century Casanova is said to have used lemons as diaphragms, cutting them in half and scooping out the pulp so they could be inserted around the cervix. Vienna's Museum of Contraception and Abortion features a display of this improvised spermicidal barrier, shown here. Sea sponges or cotton balls soaked in vinegar have often similarly been used as contraceptives, even though such barriers are highly permeable. And women in various places and times (the practice goes back at least as far as ancient Rome) have used lemon juice or vinegar in vaginal douches, both to treat infections and to prevent pregnancy.

The drab effect of calling the woman "kerchiefed" may lead a reader to suppose that she is not the "wife's lover's wife" who has just spent the night engaged in dramatic carnal revenge. But, as the "housewife," she clearly must be that person, and viewed in this way it seems that she is "astir" not because she is bustling about the house on a cleaning routine but because she has just roused herself from bed. Stephen's fantasy of "Paris rawly waking," then, four times strikes the note of people going about their post-coital routines. Belluomo gets up from the bed of his latest conquest and prepares to get dressed and start his day, while his lover goes off to sterilize the semen in her vagina. In Rodot's café two women "newmake their tumbled beauties" while their "wellpleased pleasers," also looking spruced up, pass by on the street.

JH 2021
Display in the Museum of Contraception and Abortion, Vienna. Source:
Sea sponge contraceptive from the early 1900s displayed with two rubber cervical caps from the 1940s. Source: