Julius Fromm invented the condom vending machine, then watched his business empire fall to the Nazis before dying in exile in London. Happy National Condom Week.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK
You probably haven't heard of Julius Fromm, but have him to thank if you've ever desperately slotted money into a vending machine, jammed a freshly bought condom in your pocket, and staggered off for a night of mediocre, inebriated—but protected—sex. Fromm basically invented the condom vending machine. He was a Jewish-Polish immigrant who moved to Germany as a child, before setting up hugely successful condom brand Fromms Act in 1922, opening up a few factories and capitalizing on the roaring trade in contraceptives to fend off postwar STDs.
Then Hitler came into power. Within a few years Fromm had a swastika hanging in one of his factory canteens—courtesy of two senior staffers who'd been early members of the National Socialist Party—and by 1937, Fromm's family and seemingly lascivious condom brand had been the subject of a smear campaign in an anti-Semitic newspaper.
At 55, Fromm moved to London in 1938 when it became clear that Jewish people were being systematically expelled and murdered in the Holocaust. Though he always hoped he'd be able to return and reopen his factories, he died in London three days after the end of WWII—at which point the German government had made him sell his business to a woman close to the Nazi party. We spoke to historian and journalist Michael Sontheimer, co-author of Fromms: How Julius Fromm's Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis,about Fromm's life, legacy, and how to make serious money off condoms in the 1920s.
VICE: None of us seem to know much about Julius Fromm, even though he was a big player in the condom game. How did you first come across him?
Michael Sontheimer: I grew up in West Berlin, and we used to call all condoms Fromms without really knowing why. Much later I learnt that there was a Fromm family, and within it an entrepreneur and chemist called Julius Fromm. When I heard he had a son, Eddie Fromm, who lived in London I found out where Eddie lived and rang him up to get to know about the family history.
What was the story, then?
They were this very poor Jewish family who moved from modern-day Poland—which was Russia then—to Berlin, and started a life there. Obviously Julius Fromm was one of these young Jewish men who worked hard and wanted to make something out of his life by not staying in low-paid work. I happen to live two houses down in Berlin from where Fromm started to make condoms, in a traditionally shabby room in the courtyard of his house. The demand was so high and his success so enormous that within 10 years he had three factories. He had an ability to find a product that would become very important and sought after.
What was one of the most interesting things you learnt about Fromm during your research?
He was a pretty genius businessman. When he started he was making nothing, rolling up cigarettes as a job. Then he started evening lessons in chemistry, and had this brilliant idea that contraception would become more and more important. He set a good example for all these really clever Jewish businesspeople who lived in Berlin and contributed towards the German economy, before a psychotic government decided to get rid of the Jews.
How did he go from rolling cigarettes to taking classes in chemistry?
Ah, in the beginning Fromm didn't only produce condoms—he also made gloves or dummies for toddlers. Even his son Eddie didn't know why Julius chose chemistry, though.
Were the Germans interested in his success from the beginning?
In the 1920s there were numerous Jewish business people with fantastic careers, and it didn't matter so much that he was Jewish. It wasn't a matter of anti-Semitism before the Nazis came into power. When they took over the country, Fromm even had some Aryan Germans who had been working with him, to whom he sold some of the company. Then later he was forced to sell Fromms Act to a woman very close to leading Nazi party member Hermann Goering. It's a weird story because Hermann Goering then traded a castle in Austria for the Fromms company, with this Austrian woman.
What did Julius gain from that?
The original Fromm family had to escape to London, so Julius got a bit of money from the company and was compensated—many other Jews were not compensated. He managed to get to London, and thus he and his three sons survived the Holocaust.
He knew something was going on so he got himself out?
Everyone knew that something was going to happen. He luckily survived the Holocaust but after the war the communists—the Russian and East German communists—expropriated the Fromm family again because they said, "Oh Fromm was a bad capitalist, so the family shouldn't get back the company." First, the Nazis and then the communists prevented them from getting it back. In the end the three sons started to make Fromm condoms again but the original factories in East Germany were all gone.
This is ridiculous. The whole story sounds like a film treatment.
Actually there were some film producers interested in it, but that didn't work out because there wasn't a central love story. And, really, because condoms are somehow a difficult product to turn into a film. People are shy about them.
Is it true that Julius invented the condom dispenser machine?
Yes, he was very much into public relations and advertisements and understood from early on that it wasn't enough to have a good product. You also had to make it interesting.
Where were the machines?
Like they are today, he placed them in communal bathrooms, somewhere slightly out of the way and out of sight.
I've read that the formula for making condoms hasn't changed much since Fromm pioneered "cement dipping," where glass moulds were dipped into a solution to make seamless sheaths. How much have the methods changed since?
In the 1920s when Julius Fromm was making condoms, there was a huge workforce in his factories whereas today it's all automatic. But the basic principle, of a glass penis shape which is dipped into a latex emulsion, is the same. They did lots of tests in Fromm's factories so that the condoms were 100 percent protective, and hole-free. So they blew them up. The workers took them and blew them up like balloons; if they didn't pop then they were safe. And today that is done automatically with a machine they blow them up and go really big, it's quite amazing how big they get before they pop.
Is that a testing method that Fromm made up?
Yes. He was known for having a great guarantee and a quality product.
Your book tells of relationships the Fromm family had with celebrities, too. Can you tell me more about that?
Julius' oldest son Max was an actor, who fled Germany in 1933 after training in theatre in Berlin. He ended up in France, where he featured in Hollywood movies with Bert Lancaster in the 1960s. As a blonde, he often had to play Nazis—he was a Gestapo officer in The Train, a famous film about art robbery during the Nazi occupation in France. That is somehow tragic, and happened to quite a few German refugees who ended up in Hollywood: they had to play Nazis.
How did Fromm advertise his products?
Openly. There was a big debate in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, on whether condom advertising ought to have been allowed in commercials and magazines. Condom ads were banned. Fromm worked around it with some tricks, for example with shops putting up signs saying: 'you can get the famous Fromm rubber sponges here.' But of course everyone knew that they weren't only selling sponges. If you saw one of those signs in a shop you could go in and ask for condoms.
Do you think he ever struggled to cope with the loss of his company?
Yes it was quite terrible. He was living in London and had nothing to do, after he'd been in Germany running this big factory. He was always waiting for the war to be over and he wanted to go back to Germany and build up the whole company and the factories again and then just a few days after the war ended in May 1945 he tragically died. He got up in the morning and wanted to open the curtains, and fell over and that was it. He was hoping so much to get back to his company.
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