Artifact: Stretching Condoms


Nice hat, no? It has a sort of post-Carmen Miranda quality, in that its orchid-like appearance is garish enough to make you look without being so garish as to make you laugh. Its petals even have a certain gleam, as if this "orchid" had been picked in the midst of a tropical rainfall. That luster is actually the effect of the latex condoms that constitute nearly the whole of this fashion item.

Yes, condoms. And not just any condoms, but condoms that have been distributed free throughout India for population control and AIDS prevention. Millions of these free rubbers, reports London's Telegraph, "are being used for other purposes such as waterproofing roofs, reinforcing roads and even polishing saris." India's military uses them to protect tank barrels against dust. (The hat was made in Thailand, where many of the condoms have ended up.)

Health authorities understandably complain that the condoms are not "properly utilized." Yet such unauthorized use is a familiar economic phenomenon that's at the heart of innovation. People create products for one use; consumers often find alternatives. Such innovations often increase the value of a product (especially if it's "free"), so there should be little wonder that many condoms are diverted to spontaneous markets of their own. Except for the hat: That's a surprise.