Packaging the Pill: The History of Birth Control Packaging Design
by Theresa Christine Johnson on 10/12/2020 | 6 Minute Read
May 9th, 1960, is a day that changed women’s reproductive health forever, and it marks the occasion when the Federal Drug Administration approved Enovid, the first hormonal birth control pill. By delivering doses of the hormones progestin and estrogen, the medication prevents ovulation and, in turn, pregnancy. Initially, it was the only daily tablet of its kind and available only to married women. Today, however, a wide variety of oral contraception exists depending on how often patients want to have periods and the number of hormones that are appropriate for their bodies.
The birth control pill has a problematic past—clinical trials took place in Puerto Rico, where three women died as a result, and one of the co-creators of the medication advocated for selective breeding. But today, birth control has turned into the option some women—at least 12% of women in the United States aged 15-49, according to the CDC—rely on for family planning. And just as the Pill itself has changed since it first was dreamed up in the 1950s, so has its packaging.
Hormonal birth control pills were co-created by biologist Gregory Pincus and Margaret Sanger, the Founder of Planned Parenthood. Within two years of being on the shelves, 1.2 million American women were taking it; within five years, that number almost doubled. Andrea Tone, a professor of history at McGill University and the author of Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, told Allure, “Women's sudden, surging interest in the Pill is...a reflection of women's desires for a contraceptive that provided what other methods did not: it was female-controlled, discreet, and, when used as prescribed, almost 100% effective.”
Enovid, or mestranol/norethynodrel, was a combination pill, meaning it contained both estrogen and a progestin (versus progestin-only medicine came later in the 80s). When women picked up their birth control pill from the pharmacy, they’d receive it in a glass bottle, just like any other medication they might pick up. The method was simple: take one pill every day for twenty-one days, and then skip the next five days to have a period.
Except, it wasn’t all that simple. What happened when women lost track of the last time they had their period, or what if they couldn’t remember whether or not they took a pill that day? As Tone mentioned, birth control could be almost completely effective—but when users unknowingly skip a day, they risk getting pregnant.
Doris Wagner, a woman who began taking the Pill after having her fourth child in 1961, was frustrated by this. “If Doris lost track of her cycle, or if she forgot whether or not she had taken her pill that day, she was instructed to pour all the pills out of the bottle, count how many pills were left, subtract that by the original number of pills, and consult a calendar,” according to Repackaging the Pill from 99% Invisible. “Not a very user-friendly design.”
Her husband, an engineer named David Wagner, believed there had to be a more logical way to keep track of her medication. After all, if Doris did accidentally make a mistake, she risked getting pregnant.
David recalled, "there was a lot of room for error in whether 'the Pill' was actually taken on a given day. I found that I was just as concerned as Doris was in whether she had taken her pill or not. I was constantly asking her whether she had taken 'the Pill,' and this led to some irritation and a marital row or two."
So David started by taking a piece of paper, sketched out a calendar on it, and placed the pills in the correct spot to help Doris keep track. This only worked so well, though, until the tablets ended up unintentionally scattered onto the floor.
David then developed a prototype of a pill dispenser. Using a child’s toy, some sheets of plastic, and tape, he had the first sample model which he would go on to receive a patent for (in both a circular and rectangular form) in 1964. The patent was for a device that, according to the National Museum of American History, “aids the taking of a medication by an individual on an irregular schedule...readily synchronized with the menstrual cycle of the user...with an unmistakable visual indication as to whether the individual should take a pill.”
Wagner approached some companies with his solution, but no one seemed interested. Instead, pharmaceutical companies adopted Wagner’s design for themselves without crediting his work or paying him for it, starting with Ortho Pharmaceutical’s DialPak. But he threatened to sue and earned royalty payments as a result, and, eventually, he sold his patent.
Wagner’s prototype may look familiar because the birth control packs of today look much the same. And why? Because the packaging just works—it takes something that can have unwanted or serious consequences when incorrectly used and makes the user experience uncomplicated. Ortho’s DialPak (which found inspiration in Wagner’s design) came advertised as “the package that remembers for her.”
Additionally, Wagner’s design added a layer of privacy for the consumer. The patent specifies the case appears similar to a compact and can get carried in a purse without giving any indication what it is—as the matter is “no concerns of others.” The Pill was “the first prescription medication meant to be taken by healthy people,” so plain medicine bottles weren’t practical or aesthetically pleasing. After all, women would be looking at their birth control pack every day, and something that looks like a compact mirror feels much more discreet.
While the design of birth control remains much the same, the packaging has also seen recent improvements. In 1999, designer Martha Davis, design consultant Dan Formosa, and Larry Lambelet at Ortho-McNeil developed a reusable exterior case called the Personal Pak. It still has the original circular shape that Wagner created, but looks even more inconspicuous and reduces waste.
In 1993, The Economist named the birth control pill one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, because people started to view women as partners, as equals. The packaging for the Pill changed women’s lives just as much as the Pill itself. While the pack has evolved and looks different depending on the brand, David Wagner created something not just for his wife Doris, but for women everywhere.
As The Economist stated, “Wonderful things can come in small packets.