The Great Rubber Robbery: Nazis’ Condom Empire
|12:22:11 AM, Tuesday, February 08, 2011|
“Julius Fromm was born Israel Fromm on 4 March 1883 in Konin, what was then a small town in the Russian Empire and now part of Poland. Like many Jewish families in the region, the Fromms moved in 1893 to a rapidly expanding Berlin in search of a safer life and better opportunities for the children. They were culturally assimilated, and Israel Fromm adopted the name Julius. The Fromms made a living rolling cigarettes during the day, and selling them one by one in cafés at night. This was a line of work which lent itself to impoverished immigrants in Germany who often had little more than manual dexterity. The patriarch Bernhard Fromm died in 1898 at the age of forty-two and Regina died in 1911, leaving Julius and his elder brother Salomon the responsibility of raising the entire family. Julius Fromm, a “quintessential ‘entrepreneurial proletariat’”, and a modest man with minimal education, sought a career alternative to making cigarettes and began taking evening classes in rubber chemistry around 1912.
Julius Fromm then hit upon the idea of making condoms. The early condoms from the eighteenth century were generally made of animal intestines, and were used primarily by wealthy men – like Giacomo Casanova, who referred to them as “English riding coats” – to protect against the incurable syphilis. These condoms were difficult to use, diminished pleasure, frequently broke, and offered only limited protection against venereal diseases. In 1893 the American industrialist Charles Goodyear developed rubber vulcanisation. When the sap of the rubber tree is formed into rubber, then treated with sulphur and heated to high temperatures, it forms an elastic and durable material that can be used to make raincoats, shoes, tyres and condoms which rather looked like bicycle inner tubes with bulging seams. Later a dipping method was invented that made possible the production of thinner and seamless condoms. Julius Fromm saw a market he could tap into and founded his company in 1914, opening a small workshop in the Bötzow area in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. With World War I and the liberalisation of sexual values in the Weimar Republic, the demand for condoms exploded and Fromm’s business quickly expanded, and he established factories near the Spree River in Berlin-Mitte.
Fromm improved on the manufacturing technique. He used glass moulds, which were mounted on carrier frames and dipped into a vat of rubber solution liquefied with gasoline, benzene and tetrachloromethane. After two dippings, a thin rubber skin formed around the glass moulds and this was then vulcanised in special ovens with sulphur vapours. The condoms were dusted with a lubricant, rolled off the glass moulds and tested by inflation with compressed air, inverted and packaged. Fromms’ condoms were sturdy yet elastic, durable enough to be warehoused and transported for long distances. In fact this technical process of condom manufacturing has remained largely unchanged, with the exception of automation and the replacement of the benzene treatment with a latex process in the 1960s. Using a similar setup, Fromm also made surgical finger cots, rubber gloves, pacifiers and teats for baby bottles – another sound business move given the rising birth rate in Germany…”