Since the beginning of time women have had periods.
It can be difficult to imagine Joan of Arc getting her period during a battle or Sojourner Truth fashioning a pad from a rag, but these were the realities women have always had to face. Because of the long-standing stigma about vaginal health and menstruation, there isn’t much documentation about the history of periods until around the 20th century.
A few ancient cultures forbade menstruating women from touching crops and food out of fear that their flow would spoil it. In some cases, women weren’t even allowed to touch their husbands until their cycle was evidently over. Periods were also closely associated with hysteria, superstition, and uncleanliness, so it’s easy to assume that there weren’t many historical writings done on the subject.
However, there is speculation of women using softened papyrus (Egyptian) and wood with cotton or wool wrapped around it (Ancient Greeks and Romans). It has been proven that women used standard rags, flannel, or sponges well into the 20th century. Some rural and impoverished women used grass and leaves or would bleed through their clothing. Wealthy and elite women often wore washable pads and cloths attached to a belt in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“They were pieces of rubber worn between bloomers and skirt, so when you sat down there was a rubber barrier,” says Sharra Vostral, in an interview with Women’s Health Magazine, “It could not have been comfortable.” Rubber? Egh, no, thank you. These aprons were worn into the 20th century.
Since many women did not wear underwear prior to the 19th century, some wore pads that belted around the waist. These were popular amongst most women until the invention of the adhesive pad in the 1970s. The suspenders were not a new invention in the 19th century, but the trend gained popularity with growing middle class women around the world.
At the turn of the century, Kotex manufactured and sold the first pad made of a cotton-acrylic blend called “cellucotton”. Cellucotton was originally used for bandages during WWI, so after the war there was an abundance of it. Nurses in France were using it to soak up menstrual flow and Kotex saw it as an opportunity to sell to the everyday woman. They marketed towards wealthy women who could afford to shop at department stores were the pads were sold.
Sanitary belts were still being used to hold the new cellucotton pad in place. Styles and colors changed over the decades, but these suspenders remained popular until the invention of adhesive pads in the 1970s.
Sanitary belt, likely before 1930
Dr. Earle Haas creates the first tampon made from cardboard and cotton. Kotex didn’t think it would work and passed on the idea.
A vintage Tampax ad. Worn internally? What a concept.
Gertrude Tendrich buys the patent for tampons (for 32,000 USD AKA big bucks in 1933) and founds Tampax. These tampons were advertised for married ladies only, as people thought women could lose their virginity by wearing one. Tampons had medical uses before they went commercial; their purpose being to treat prolapsed uteruses.
One of the first Tampax ads. 10 tampons for ¢45? I wish.
They were more effective than any product available at the time, but did not sell well because women didn’t want to touch their own menstrual blood. There was a similar design patented in 1884 by Hiram Farr, but it was much too large and did not sell well.
Chalmer’s cup was smaller and more practical; she suggested it be made of a malleable material called vulcanized rubber for a more comfortable fit. However the cup was produced using a hard rubber, which also deterred women from buying it.
An adhesive pad (c.1974), courtesy of mum.org
Stayfree releases the first pad with an adhesive strip. This was a huge deal at the time. No more uncomfortable belts. Can you believe this was only 50 years ago?
Rely tampon, courtesy of mum.org
Rely tampons came into play. These tampons were made of polyester foam cubes on the inside, along with a substance called carboxymethyl cellulose. However, they were recalled in 1980 due to Toxic Shock Syndrome risk; women who harbored staphylococcus aureus in their bodies were left vulnerable to TSS while using synthetic tampons.
The Berkeley Women’s Health Collective accused manufacturers of withholding information about the substances used in tampons. At this time, nearly all feminine hygiene products were made of synthetic materials.
1980s and beyond
By this time, over 2,000 cases of TSS had been reported by the CDC. 90% of them were menstruating women, 99% of them using tampons:
“Of the 2,023 cases in females in which menstrual status at the time of onset could be determined, 1,824 (90%) were associated with menstruation. Of the menstruation-associated cases, information on the type of sanitary product used was available for 1,535: 1,517 (99%) occurred in tampon-users; 17 (1%), in users of napkins and minipads exclusively; and one ( 1%), in a sea-sponge user.”
Courtney Cox in a 1985 Tampax commercial, courtesy of YouTube
The first person to say “period” in commercial was Courtney Cox in an ad for Tampax. Using the term came as a shock, considering commercials would only speak about periods in euphemisms up until this point. “Time of the Month” and “Aunt Flo” were losing in the race of normalization.
2000s + 2010s
While the menstrual cup and reusable pads are an option for some, disposable feminine hygiene products still remain the primary products of choice. Recently, there has been a revival in the demand for transparency when it comes to feminine care products and CPG companies. People are wisening up to the notion for all-natural ingredients to be included in these products. Consumers want cotton, not artificial contents. Not only is cotton infinitely more comfortable, especially for women with sensitive skin, but it is also biodegradable.
Women and men have made serious progress when it comes to normalizing menstruation. Just in the last decade, it has become an easier subject to discuss in the public forum; periods are no longer reduced to a phenomena of hysterical outbursts and concerning behavior in Western society. Unfortunately there is still a certain stigmatization of periods, but as a culture focused on being open and genuine, we are steering away from this negative view of a natural occurrence.