Today we are lucky to have a choice of period products, including disposable and reusable options. Traditionally, however, people who menstruate haven’t been so lucky…
Back in ancient Egypt, papyrus was used and in ancient Japan paper was used. The Native Americans made a version of sanitary towels using buffalo skin and moss, which, comparatively, sounds heavenly!
That said, as an aside, it’s not always clear what is true. Take the case of Tampax telling website readers that in ancient Greece, wool was wrapped around wood and used as a tampon. As appealing as the myth seems to be, it’s likely just that. Although it could be a misunderstanding of an ancient Greek treatment for vaginal issues, it could be an attempt by tampon companies at naturalising their product, especially given we’ll see the concerns around virginity later… Another problem is that most of history is written by men… And upper class men at that…
“Part of the reason that there is little extant evidence is located in the dual nature of sanitary protection. This subject is both taboo and mundane, leading to an apparent lack of contemporary early modern sources. Menstruation is a commonplace experience for women the world over, yet it is often considered a subject to be left unspoken.”
– Sara Read
Evidence that Read has found, suggests that in the 17th century, some women were using ‘clouts’ or ‘rags’, folded cloths used to absorb blood. However, this wasn’t across all classes. She has found other evidence that suggests only higher ranking women would wear sanitary protection. Sponges may have been used, possibly just by prostitutes. Her paper, linked below, is a very interesting read about attitudes and beliefs around menstruation in early modern England as well as practices.
Whilst DIY methods were certainly used, and especially in more recent history we know rags or homemade pads were used, for much of history, it’s likely that free bleeding was the main ‘choice’, especially amongst the poorer strata of society.
In the second half of the 19th century, a variety of patents were filed in the US for various period paraphernalia – and as an aside, much of what I’ve been able to find is based on period products in the US. These included horrific sounding early takes on a menstrual cup – generally made of metal or hard rubber, rubber pants and period aprons…
“The menstrual apron and pad holder in front are cloth-covered rubber. The wearer pinned absorbent cloth, such as bird’s-eye diaper cloth, onto the inner side of the holder. Of course, the woman wore the whole contraption “backwards,” under her dress, and over her buttocks, to keep the menstrual blood away from her clothing.”
– Museum of Menstruation
You can see an advert for one of these over at MUM.
Whilst all the options pre-20th century sound awful, they were also being used at a time when people had fewer periods. Between a later age of menarche, more pregnancies and time spent breastfeeding and poor nutrition, menstruation was often suppressed during an adult’s life.
A lot changed at the back end of the 19th century when disposable sanitary towels went on sale. By the 1890s, middle class women were ordering mass produced sanitary napkins, or buying the fabric to make their own at home. Disposable options were particularly revolutionary. Before this, women were trying to deal with bloody cloths and handwashing but now, they could simply be thrown away – funny how things go full circle!
In 1899, a female German doctor wrote the following in a book aimed at middle class women:
“It is completely disgusting to bleed into your chemise, and wearing that same chemise for four to eight days can cause infections.”
This suggests that this was a very common practice, and also adding weight to the move towards contraptions to deal with bleeding. This also came at a time when, in America at least, menstrual blood was considered dangerous and so reusable rags were thought to harbour germs and gases which could contaminate the user. Advertising claimed that doctors supported disposable options as healthier. For anyone starting their period at this time, commercial options seemed to be the ideal, a basic necessity.
A common method of protection in the 1900s included linen belts with napkins pinned to them and by the 1920s, the belts were sued with disposable napkins. During the first world war, nurses had noticed the cellulose that was used for bandages absorbed blood better than cotton. They realised the potential and began using it for their periods. Kotex saw the market opportunity and manufactured these new, highly absorbent, disposable napkins.
The 1930s saw the arrival of tampons for married women but were not for unmarried women as it was thought they would break the very precious hymen. It was 1929 that Dr Haas created the tampon, likely based on earlier prototypes, and it was also likely that being a male doctor gave him some kudos. A businesswoman marketed them under the name Tampax in 1936 and whilst it was adopted by some, others thought because it was worn internally it was little more than a dildo. In reality, tampons offered freedom from belts, pins, pads and chafing and allowed for physical activity. Dancers and swimmers in particular welcomed them.
Around this time, Leona Chalmers patented the menstrual cup, but it didn’t take off.
Concerns around tampons were addressed in the 1940s. Dr Robert Latou Dickinson gave tampons a boost when he said that they are narrow enough not to break the hymen and hence are not a threat to virginity. He also said that any sexual stimulation from the tampon was momentary and nothing compared to how the sanitary pad rubbed against the body.
Despite the expectation that women should work through their periods during World War Two, the 50s found women encouraged to be quiet and restful instead. It was at this time that PMS was labelled.
In the 1960s, washable cloth pads came back into fashion and with the hippie movement, the menstrual cup was relaunched but again it didn’t take off. In 1969, the self adhesive pad came out and allowed you to get rid of the belts and pins.
By the 90s, sanitary towels had grown wings and although bulkier than the pads today, they were very recognisable. Despite many people using tampons, fears over the hymen remained. A Tampax advert in Seventeen, showed a concerned girl asking if she’d still be a virgin if she used a tampon.
In the 2000s and 2010s, menstrual cups finally took off and period pants hit the market and reusable and environmentally friendly products have grown in popularity.
- The history of tampons in ancient Greece
- A brief history of period products
- A short history of modern menstrual products
- What was it like to get your period in ancient Greece?
- “Thy Righteousness is but a menstrual clout”: Sanitary Practices and Prejudice in Early Modern England, Sara Read
- The Curse, Karen Houppert
- The Body Project, Joan Jacobs Brumberg