The History of Menstruation Products
Most women today probably take for granted the disposable pads, tampons, and other products that make red days manageable. There are different sizes of menstruation products for every occasion, outfit, and flow - all created to provide maximum comfort and flexibility for modern women.
These menstruation products can be bought in almost any drugstore or grocery store available in your city and can be changed in just a few minutes. But women from centuries before you didn’t enjoy the same comfort. In fact, they used alternatives that are borderline crazy in this time’s standards.
Here’s the interesting evolution of the menstruation products you love to use:
3000 BC - 5th Century
The first known record of menstruation products is from Ancient Egypt, where women used softened papyrus as a tampon. Papyrus is a material from the stems of a water plant and used for making ropes, sandals, boats, and paper for writing and painting.
The father of medicine, Hippocrates, said that ancient Greek women prefered to use bits of wood (ouch!) wrapped with lint for their tampons.
Others settle for a more comfortable and softer alternative - using sea sponges as tampons. Surprisingly, there are still women who use sponges as tampons today!
5th - 15th Century
Women of this era turned to makeshift pads from rags. This is where the slang term ‘on the rag’ started to describe women who were on their period. Like most things in the past, women were shamed for menstruating, contributing to the lack of other types of menstruation products to use. Blood was thought to carry the body’s toxins and excesses, which was likely why it was considered taboo.
During this era, it was popular medical practice to use bloodletting for curing diseases. Another crazy practice was burning toads and wearing its ashes to alleviate the cramps experienced during periods.
In 1822, they started referring to menstruation as ‘periods’, a term that’s still used today.
It was during the 1850s, that a slightly uncomfortable menstruation product alternative was made to absorb blood properly - rubber aprons. During their periods, women had to pin clean cotton and flannel into their bloomers, then use the sanitary apron or the rubber aprons to catch all the menstrual blood.
This would mean that there was a strip of rubber between their legs to prevent blood from leaking onto furniture, clothes, and other materials! While this contraption helped with avoiding bloody stains on furniture, it was uncomfortable as well as stinky.
After that, menstrual belts came into the picture. These were cloth belts in which clean absorbent pads were pinned on to soak up blood. While it was popular in the 19th century, it was only patented in 1922.
In late 1896, the very first menstruation products to be available in the market were made. The product was called Lister’s Towels, and although it was made for women’s periods and designed for comfort, it eventually failed. In this era, it was still shameful for a woman to have a period and no one wanted to be seen buying menstruation products.
In the 1919s, there was an influx of pseudoscience research about menstruation. One of the popular theories was from Professor B. Schick who introduced the concept of “menotoxins”, a name he coined for the supposed “poison” found in menstrual blood. He said that this poison can make flowers wilt and spoil wine. Who is this guy?
Skip forward to World War I where French Nurses invented the modern pad. They used extra cellulose (a special blend of acyclic cotton that’s commonly used in bandages) to absorb menstrual blood during their shift. Kotex - a modern period brand - heard this idea and began manufacturing cellulose pads for women, then sold it in the market as menstruation products.
Around that time, Johnson & Johnson rebranded Lister’s Towels as ‘Nupak’, functioning similarly to Kotex’s menstruation products but with different packaging. Selling the pads in stores finally took off, but mostly to wealthier women who were the ones to visit department stores. However, it was common for women to leave their payment on the counter and leave the store before anyone saw them because of the continuing stigma surrounding menstruation.
Another menstruation product in stores introduced in the 1920s was the tampon. While it did sell, it wasn’t as popular as the cellulose pads because it was leaky and it had no applicators.
1930 - 1980
In the 1930s, Leona Chalmers introduced the first menstrual cup: a rubber cup that stays in the vaginal canal and catches the menstrual fluid.
In 1931, a man named Earle Haas introduced the tampon we all know today: the one with applicators, made of cotton, and with a snug fit that rarely leaks. This was made so women wouldn’t need to touch the blood collected on their period. He eventually invented the diaphragm too. In 1933, Haas’ tampon patent was bought by Gertrude Tendrich and was marketed as Tampax.
In 1969, a company named Stayfree introduced modern menstrual pads with adhesive tape to hold onto underwear, instead of the menstrual belts that had been used up until this point.
In 1975, Rely tampons took the markets by storm and grew in popularity due to its super absorbency. However, this tampon make was known to breed bacteria which led to toxic shock syndrome, causing the death of many women who used them. Rely was forced to recall their products in 1980.
Flashing forward to the 2000s, there were a lot of alternative menstruation products introduced for you to choose from. In 2003, women were even introduced to the choice of completely skipping their period with Lybrel’s birth control pills. At this time, the menstrual cup also made a comeback, made with better materials than before, offering an environmentally friendly alternative to consumers.
More sustainable period brands began popping up at this time too, including hannahpad. In 2005, hannahpad was introduced as an eco-friendly 100% organic cotton washable pad to help women save money and get better care during their red days. A lot of companies also introduced 100% organic cotton tampons as it has more beneficial properties and healthier for women.
Menstruation’s Long History
For as long as women have been walking this planet, they’ve had to find creative ways to manage their periods. It’s crazy to look back at the history of menstruation products and see just how far we’ve come. Today, no woman needs to be held back from living their life just because it’s their time of the month. These leaps in inventions, as well as an ending stigma around periods, has paved the way for women to enjoy their life more fully!