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99 percent invisible Episode 266: Repackaging the Pill

In 1960, a new wonder drug hit the U.S. market. And while lots of new drugs promise dramatic results, this one would actually transform millions of lives and radically shift American culture. It was called Enovid. It was the first oral contraceptive, and it ushered in extraordinary changes and opportunities for women.

Within just two years, 1.2 million American women were taking the birth control pill. Within five years, the pill would become the most popular form of birth control in the United States.

Most people are familiar with at least one version of its packaging — a round plastic disc which opens like a shell and looks like a makeup compact. But the pill wasn’t always packaged this way. The first birth control pill to hit the market came in a simple glass bottle of loose tablets, like any other prescription pill.
The first birth control pill, Enovid, by G.D. Searle, from 1960. The Percy Skuy Collection, Dittrick Medical History Center, Case Western Reserve University. Photo by Carrie Eisert.

How the pill traveled from these nondescript bottles into some of the most heavily designed and recognizable pill packages in history, tells a story about the medical and cultural anxieties of the time. And it begins with a family in Illinois.

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