The history of menstruation is lacking in some detail. This is not surprising because for centuries history was recorded mainly by men, and even today, it is a not a topic men (or even many women) are comfortable with. Thanks to various excellent sources, however, we do know the major developments in the history of menstruation – if you’re interested, please read on.
You might imagine that the tampon is a fairly modern way to capture menstrual flow but the history of menstruation tells us that the concept was used by the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Women of Ancient Egypt made disposable tampons from softened papyrus, while the Ancient Greek women used a small piece of wood wrapped with lint. Records show that women of the Byzantine Empire used wadges of soft white wool. History also shows us that women were ingenious and creative in their ways to capture menstrual flow, using sea sponges, paper, moss, animal skins, grass and wool, among others.
We all know that menstruation is an unfathomable subject for many men. Indeed, for centuries, men believed – including physicians – women menstruated as a way to release blood to cool down their emotions and general hysteria. It wasn’t until 1831 that Frenchman Charles Négrier linked menstruation and ovulation. Don’t you think it’s extraordinary that it took so long for this link to be made?
Today, we are almost obsessive about cleanliness and hygiene during our period but can you imagine life as a 19th century woman living in rural Europe or North America? Unless you were of the higher classes, women wore no sanitary protection and simply let the blood flow. Until the late 1800s, it was considered unhealthy to regularly wash and change underclothing (if indeed they wore any) due to the fear of either blocking the bleeding or encouraging a heavier flow. We should remember though, the lives and health of women back then were very different from today. Menarche (first menstrual flow) started at a later age and menopause occurred at a much younger age. Also, the lot of women was to bear babies and many women spent most of their fertile lives pregnant. Menstruation regularity was also greatly influenced by poor health and malnutrition.
On your period? Want to go horse riding or swimming? Want to cook yourself something to eat or bake a cake to share? Can you ever contemplate letting your period stop you doing anything (unless you’re rolling around your bed dealing with intense cramps!)? There have been some stupid thoughts throughout the history of menstruation. At one time in France, females were not able to work in sugar factories when menstruating because of the fear it would spoil the food. Then in 1878, the British Medical Journal stated that women on their period cannot pickle meat. Geez!
It was in 1839 that vulcanized rubber was invented by Charles Goodyear and this technology would eventually be used to manufacture condoms, douching syringes and intrauterine devices, including the “womb veil,” aka the diaphragm. From 1840 onwards, until the first products we’d recognize as sanitary ware today, all sorts of products came into being but very few came to market. Goodyear’s rubber, however, was used to create sanitary aprons. These were designed to stop the despoilment of clothing rather than absorb the flow. By the 1870s the first types of sanitary pads started to appear.
So, just as man’s ingenuity is beginning to improve the life of menstruating women, someone has to come along and upset the apple cart. If you’ve ever wondered just why it is such a taboo subject, one of the reasons could well be due to the 1873 Comstock Act. This law made it illegal to sell or distribute pornography and conception-related material in the USA. The term “feminine hygiene” was coined by the birth control industry and all packaging of “women’s” products were redesigned and renamed. I actually don’t mind the term, it says it all, but it created an aura and mystique that seems a barrier to men.
So we now come to the late 1800s. The Industrial Revolution was a time of great ingenuity, not just in industry, but in science and medicine too. People were becoming much more clued up on health. Doctors began advising and encouraging women to wear menstrual devices and to stop allowing menstrual flow simply to seep into their clothing. Devices were still cumbersome, uncomfortable and in many cases impractical. But that was soon to change.
Around the 1870s, we started to see the first commercially-available menstrual pads that were held in place by suspenders. By the 1890s, suspenders were gradually starting to be replaced by menstrual belts. The pads were reusable – designed to be washed multiple times. Then finally, in 1896, Johnson and Johnson came to the relief of women everywhere and a breakthrough in the history of menstruation with the introduction of Lister’s Towels – the first sanitary pads. Sadly, this was the time of Queen Victoria and prudish attitudes prevailed; the towels were not a success. Many European and American women still used homemade pads pinned to their underwear or self-fashioned devices, often muslin belts. An indication of the times is that one of the reasons for the heavy industrial mill floors to be covered in straw was to catch menstrual blood of the female workers – they were lower class and it was typical they went without sanitary napkins.
The nurses of World War I were not only incredibly dedicated in horrific circumstances but also clever. They saw that cellulose bandages being used for wounds were much more efficient at absorbing blood than cotton, so they started using them for their sanitary towels. Following this lead, in the 1920s came the invention of disposable pads, brought to us by Kimberly-Clark with the hugely-known brand name of Kotex. Although at this stage you still needed a sanitary belt, the '20s also saw the introduction of close crotched underwear, and we were finally able to wave goodbye to bloomers. When, in 1927, Johnson & Johnson introduced Modess, the market for sanitary products began to open up.
The patent for the first tampon, which included a tube within a tube applicator that we’re familiar with today, was filed in 1931 by Dr. Earle Haas. In 1933, after buying the patent for $32,000 (wow, that was big money back then), Gertrude Tendrich founded Tampax and dealing with the monthly cycle was changed forever. The first Tampax products were made at Tendrich’s home, using her sewing machine and the compression machine Dr. Haas had invented. The tampon wasn’t an immediate success. Many women felt they were sexual. An alternative came along in 1937 with the menstrual cup, but they were hugely unpopular compared to disposable products that save women from having to handle their flow.
In the 1950s, manufacturers had another go with menstrual cups. Tassette particularly ploughed big advertising money into them, but they once again failed. Not only were disposable products very well established, but women could now also choose between pads and tampons with applicators and tampons without. This decade also saw the introduction of tampon cases – finally, women could carry sanitary products in their purses without embarrassment (although there’s still some taboo around this today).
While the sexual revolution was happening, not much happened in the history of menstruation that was too noteworthy, other than in 1969. The first sanitary pads with adhesive strips went on sale (Stayfree Minipads). Finally, women who didn’t want to use tampons were freed of the necessity to wear sanitary belts or suspenders. Seemingly, in a contradiction to the major step forward, the washable pad made a re-emergence, catering to the ideals of the eco-conscious hippies of the flower generation.
Following the success of Stayfree Minipads, Kimberly-Clark brought us Freedom pads (what a great name!), but perhaps more momentously, in 1972, both the USA and UK lifted the ban on the advertising of sanitary products on television.
Unfortunately (for tampons) but fortunately (for the sake of female health) the issue of Toxic Shock Syndrome reared its very ugly head. TSS is acute septicaemia, typically caused by bacterial infection from a retained tampon or IUD. As a reaction to this menstrual cups made yet another appearance and this time, they stuck around and are still in use today, although they remain the least popular of all sanitary products. Despite the ick factor, any woman with an environmental conscience might start turning to these more in the future. Although our disposable products are fabulous, they still contribute to the world’s landfill problems – did you know you will use about 11,000 sanitary products in your lifetime?
So the history of menstruation has taken us from using wads of natural materials to nothing, to cups and to disposables. We now have a multitude of towels, pads and tampons. They fit every type of underwear and vary for minimal flow to very heavy flow, for light days and heavy days, for day and for night. What will be next? I leave you with this thought. You may not know that sanitary products contain bleaching agents, chemicals that turn liquid in gel and things like dioxins – significant environmental pollutants. You worry about what ingredients are in your hair care products, your make up and your skincare products. What about things you wear next to or in your most intimate and sensitive area? I predict environmentally-friendly sanitary products will be the next big milestone in the history of menstruation. (I hope!)
I do hope you found this interesting. Did you learn stuff you didn’t know? Please take this opportunity to have your say on all things menstrual!
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