Two pink lines appeared on a pregnancy test after exactly three minutes of waiting—changing my life forever. It was two days before I was supposed to start my period, and over the next 24 hours, I bounced between processing, crying, secretly screaming in excitement and planning a way to surprise my husband with the news that I was pregnant for the first time.
This happened in 2016. If it had been 40 years earlier, that private moment of finding out I was pregnant—by myself, at home—wouldn’t have been possible.
At-home pregnancy tests are one of the most amazing inventions for women. They are available in all major drug stores and grocery stores, super easy to use and reveal a pregnancy (or not!) in a matter of minutes, with close to 99% accuracy.
It’s hard not to take these little miracle pee sticks for granted, but there was a time when our mothers and grandmothers weren’t so lucky.
Can you imagine waiting until your period didn’t start or you developed early pregnancy symptoms to know you were expecting? Or having to make an appointment at an OB-GYN, so they could perform a test with questionable science (which, btw, hurt animals in the process) just to wait another few days for your result? Thankfully, research has come a long way, benefitting both expecting mamas—and women hoping not to be pregnant—tremendously.
The evolution of at-home pregnancy tests is fascinating, with records of using urine to detect pregnancy dating back to the ancient Egyptians!
When were the first at-home pregnancy tests available?
"The first home pregnancy test kits came on the market in 1977,” says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, OB-GYN, a clinical professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, & Reproductive Sciences at Yale University School of Medicine, and founder of madameovary.com.
Let that soak in for a second. 1977 was 8 years after we landed on the moon. It was the year Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope was released in theaters and people were dancing to ABBA and the Eagles. My mom was 7 years old, meaning her mom didn’t have the ability to determine pregnancy at home. Wild, right?
According to the Office of National Institutes of Health History & Stetten Museum, the first pregnancy test on the market was created by Warner-Chilcott called “Early Pregnancy Test” or “Error Proof Test” and marketed as “e.p.t.” They applied for FDA approval in 1976, which was granted at the end of 1977. It was approved along with the Predictor, ACU-TEST and Answer.
Pregnancy tests were officially advertised in women’s magazines in 1978, boasting all the things it included for just $10: a vial of purified water, a test tube with sheep red blood cells (we know, it was a different time), a medicine dropper and clear plastic support for the test tube. So, yes, it looked much different from the little plastic stick we have today. The test took two hours and claimed 97% accuracy on positives and 80% accuracy on negatives.
What were women’s options before at-home pregnancy tests?
In 1350 BCE, there are written records of ancient Egyptian women urinating on wheat and barley seeds over several days. If the urine promoted growth in the barley, then the woman was likely pregnant. Later, people tried to guess pregnancy status based on the color of urine.
It wasn’t until the 1890s that scientists learned about hormones in the body and physicians encouraged women to see a doctor as soon as pregnancy was suspected to receive better prenatal care. In the 1920s, scientists recognized the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) was only found in pregnant women, and in 1927, scientists Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek discovered injecting a pregnant woman’s urine into an immature mouse or rabbit would make it go into heat (a process known as the A-Z test).
To determine if a woman was pregnant before the 1960s, doctors would inject her urine into a small animal like a rabbit and monitor results.
“Before at-home pregnancy tests, you went through your doctor’s office—and they did a urine test, which actually then involved injected the sample into a rabbit—and the slang phrase that people used was that you had to wait until the rabbit died to know if you were pregnant,” says Dr. Minkin. “They actually saw if the injection made the rabbit’s uterus grow!”
According to the NIH, “these tests were expensive, required the sacrifice of several animals, and slow, often taking days to get results.” Definitely not ideal—or humane.
While you were waiting on results from your “rabbit test,” many unmarried women would often get “a concomitant lecture on being an unwed mother,” says Dr. Minkin. That’s not a great conversation at any time, but especially when you are anxiously awaiting results!
What are the best tests on the market today?
“Things are way better now,” says Dr. Minkin. “All of the modern tests involve testing for a hormone called hCG, and the tests comprise antibodies to the hCG which one can quantify. hCG is manufactured by the fertilized egg as it starts developing after being implanted into the wall of the uterus.”
There are different levels of sensitivity on pregnancy tests that determine how quickly it can pick up on hCG, which also affects the price. Either way, most tests are 50% to 75% accurate four to five days before your missed period and about 99% accurate on the day of your missed period.
“Different companies have advanced the science, making the tests more and more sensitive,” adds Dr. Minkin. “And there is actually one test called the First Response Test, which is so sensitive that it can tell you that you are pregnant 6 days before the first day of the missed period.”
Why is finding out you’re pregnant sooner important?
Finding out you’re pregnant sooner, without having to go to a doctor’s office (or sacrifice animals) is a game-changer for women.
“For women who are happy to be pregnant,” explains Dr. Minkin, “they want to see if they are pregnant as soon as possible. And yes, we know that even though folks try to be as good as they can (no smoking, no drinking, no drugs) while they are trying to conceive, we know that nothing reinforces good behavior like a positive pregnancy test.”
On the other hand, having an at-home pregnancy test is also important for those who don’t want to be pregnant. “For those who really don’t want to be pregnant, if you happen to live in Texas—or other states that might copy that state—if you want to terminate a pregnancy, you need to do it as soon as possible,” says Dr. Minkin. “And if you know you are pregnant even before you miss a period, you can get the process planned ASAP.”
What is the future of at-home pregnancy tests?
“We fortunately have come a long way since 1976 in terms of the technology,” says Dr. Minkin. And things are still changing all the time.
For example, LIA makes an ultra-thin pregnancy test from paper that is flushable and compostable, unlike the big plastic ones of the past. And Stix pregnancy tests can be mailed to you in a discreet package on a recurring basis, so you never have to worry about going out to the store to pick one up (especially if you don’t want anyone to see you).
Whether you are trying to conceive or not, reliable, easy-to-use pregnancy tests are available to quickly tell you if you’re pregnant. That’s pretty amazing, right?
National Institutes of Health. Pregnancy test timeline - history - office of NIH History and Stetten Museum.
Mary Jane Minkin, MD, OB-GYN, Clinical Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at Yale University School of Medicine, and founder of madameovary.com
Dr. Minkin is a practicing gynecologist with a special interest in menopause. She is a North American Menopause Society Certified Menopause Clinician. She is also the codirector of the Sexuality, Intimacy and Menopause for cancer survivors program at the Smilow Cancer Center. She has taught at Yale University School of Medicine for over 41 years, and is a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences. Dr. Minkin has been recognized by Connecticut Magazine as a ‘Top Doc’ in the state. Her website, madameovary.com, is a trove of information on menopause, including articles, videos and podcasts.