Taking a pregnancy test is a bit like entering a psychic's lair and gazing into a crystal ball, asking what the future holds. But instead of sitting at a fancy table and staring into a magic stone, we hover over a toilet bowl to cast our urine on a small plastic stick so that it may tell us what's going on in our uterus. A simple and speedy test of our freshest urine is all it takes to find out potentially life altering gynecological information these days, but what about all the people who have had questions of a natal nature in times gone by?
Before little blue lines ever appeared in windows on a plastic stick, potentially pregnant folks had to rely on other, more creative means of discovering what whether or not a bun was in the oven. Versions of the home pregnancy tests have been around for many centuries, and all of them have one very important thing in common: pee.
Let's start with everyone's favorite place in history: ancient Egypt. The first method for pregnancy testing that we're aware of involved wheat and barley. And, of course, pee. Women would urinate on wheat and barley seeds every day for several days (so not exactly the one-minute response we're used to now), and, if the seeds grew into plants, that was believed to indicate the presence of a fetus. If the seeds failed to germinate, it was thought that there was no pregnancy. The wheat-and-barley test also served as a means of predicting a baby's sex. If the wheat grew, it indicated that a baby girl would bounce out in nine months; the barley meant a boy was on the way. This testing method was discovered on a papyrus that is now held in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.
(The ancient Egyptians also thought that good sex made good babies, so childbirth literature of the era was filled with pseudo-pornographic instructions for how to stimulate female orgasms. Nice.)
I wish I could take credit for this brilliant alliterative moniker, but, alas, the term has been used since the middle ages to describe a special class of pseudo-physician who could, well, read pee. Piss prophets would visually examine urine in order to detect a spread of conditions, including pregnancy. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), European records from the 1500s tell us that these urinary experts would predict pregnancies by eyeballing the color of the pee in question; supposedly, the pee of a pregnant individual would have a "clear pale lemon color leaning toward off-white, having a cloud on its surface."
Some tests from this time involved mixing urine with wine to see if there was a specific sort of reaction when the two fluids were combined. According to the NIH, alcohol does indeed react to certain proteins that show up in pee, so this test could have produced accurate results.
"The Doctor's Visit"
In the 17th century, a common pregnancy test involved a woman peeing on a ribbon, which she would then set on fire. If the smoke from the burning ribbon caused the woman to gag or feel nauseated it was an indication that she was pregnant.
This technique is depicted in one of the most famous medical-themed paintings, "The Doctor's Visit," by Dutch painter Jan Steen. The woman in the painting must be good and pregnant, because she looks…. unwell (and the doctor looks like a creep, a theme that becomes relevant later).
In the 1920s, doctors across Europe injected (you guessed it) human pee into female rabbits and mice. The doctors noticed that when urine containing pregnancy hormones caused the promotion of ovary development in our furry friends. In 1927, two German doctors named Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek created what is considered to be the first reliable pregnancy test. The method was called the A-Z test, which involved injecting a woman's urine into an immature female mouse or rat. If the urine contained pregnancy hormones, the rodent would go into heat. The test was primarily used to detect pregnancies, but it could also determine whether or not a woman might be miscarrying or had a gynecological tumor.
Out of the home and into the hospital
During the 1930s and 1940s, the NIH tells us that it became common practice for women to be told to abandon "old wives tale" methods for predicting pregnancy. Instead, they were encouraged to seek the expertise of a licensed doctor. There were no over-the-counter tests that could be taken at home at this time, meaning pregnancy prediction was a more formalized medical affair left to physicians.
Along with the subtle political implications of pushing reproductive matters out of the home and into a regulated space like a hospital, there were also government incentives for families to have more children—essentially to help the world effort during World War II. In Britain, the government provided unprecedented levels of postnatal care, offering milk and food subsidies and additional medical care. Here, we really see pregnancy and childbirth becoming an explicitly political topic.
Our bodies, our home pregnancy test kits
With the sexual revolution and women's liberation movement during the 1960s and 1970s came radical changes in reproductive planning, including at-home pregnancy testing. The first home pregnancy test hit pharmacy shelves in 1977 (only four years after Roe v. Wade), thanks to a 26-year-old graphic designer named Margaret Crane. Crane was working for the pharmaceutical company Organon, designing packaging for lipstick and ointments. Because she worked for the company that interpreted pregnancy tests, she encountered hundreds of pregnancy tests that were sent in from doctor's offices.
Crane felt that the tests were simple enough to be properly carried out at home, so she got to work creating the chemistry kit-like pregnancy tests that ultimately became the first home pregnancy tests. Crane's kit was called the Predictor, and was made available for mass consumption in 1977. Crane's test consisted of a vial of purified water, a dropper, sheep's blood cells, and an angled mirror, and, of course, a urine sample from the testee.
The ability to test for pregnancy at home was nothing short of revolutionary. For one, it allowed single women to find out their pregnancy status in the comfort and safety of their homes, without the risk of being shamed and patronized by doctors. According to Crane, many people objected to her test on moral grounds, suggesting that allowing women to test themselves for pregnancy at home was somehow connected to abortion.
Thin blue lines
1988 was the year that a simple pee-on-a-stick pregnancy test was made available for purchase and use at home. The small and sleek pregnancy test we now know, love, and pee all over was first developed by Unilever. Called the ClearBlue Easy, this wand-shaped test was the first that only collected urine on one end, a design feature meant to protect against, well, pissing all over your own hand while taking the test (though I'd argue that pregnancy test designers could still do more on this front). The test was named for the small blue lines that would appear in windows on the wand to whether or not pregnancy hormones were present in the tested urine.
A few years later, in 1990, designer Marcel Wanders conceived of a pregnancy test for Organon that could be kept as a souvenir. In 2012, Wanders told The New York Times that, since Organon's test was a bit larger than the competition's, he decided capitalize on the size, and designed the test such that parents could write on it, place stickers on it, and save it for posterity.
The pee stops here
A decade and a half later, we still use the wand test. In all of the most popular models, either blue or pink lines will appear within a minute or two after the wand is peed upon. Unlike so many medical devices, the home pregnancy test has, in many ways, remained quite unchanged throughout the ages. The accuracy of the tests has improved tremendously since the wheat and barley days, but a home pregnancy test has always consisted of the collection and analysis of pee.
Sine its humble beginnings, millennia ago, the pregnancy test has become a politically potent device, a symbol as relevant to women's liberation as the pill. Home pregnancy testing is more than just a special trip to the bathroom—it's really a radical expression of reproductive autonomy and freedom.