The History of Menstrual Hygiene
The history of menstruation is cloaked in myths and misunderstanding. Pliny the Elder, the Ancient Roman philosopher who gave us “Home is where the heart is”, also wrote that menstrual blood could turn dogs mad, wither crops and trees, and, if exposed to lightning, ward off “hailstorms and whirlwinds”. Pliny also believed that consuming a woman’s menstrual blood would guarantee her fidelity for life, a trick employed in love charms as recently as 2009, when a maid in Hong Kong was charged for adding her menstrual blood to her employer’s soup in an attempt to mend their relationship.
This is all to say that the history of menstruation is riddled with misinformation, even now. If you add in the fact that most ancient scribes were men who primarily wrote about other men, you can understand why any historical information about periods, even misinformation, is pretty scarce. Menstruation has been so taboo historically that even the word “taboo” comes from the Polynesian term "tapu," meaning “sacred” and “menstrual flow” (that’s right, menstruation is the original “taboo”).
We’ve compiled a timeline of the history of menstruation, and here’s how the original taboo has slowly become a (somewhat) accepted part of modern life.
3,000 B.C. - 5th century
Historians believe that Ancient Egyptians made tampons out of softened papyrus, while Hippocrates, Father of Medicine, wrote that Ancient Greek women used to make tampons by wrapping bits of wood with lint. Some women were also thought to use sea sponges as tampons (a practice still in use today!).
5th - 15th century
Women use rags as makeshift pads, leading to the term “on the rag” becoming slang for menstruation. During the medieval period there is a lot of religious shame surrounding menstruation. Blood is thought to contain the body’s toxins and excesses, hence the use of bloodletting as a medical practice. Menstrual blood is considered dirty, and some even believe that drinking it will cause leprosy. Another common belief? Burning a toad and wearing its ashes around your neck will ease cramps.
The word “period” comes into use as a term for menstruation.
Women pin cotton and flannel into their bloomers when it’s that time of the month. The sanitary apron is invented: a rubber apron with a strip that runs between the legs to prevent blood from getting on women’s skirts and seats. They save furniture from stains, but they are smelly and uncomfortable. Menstrual belts—cloth belts onto which absorbent fabric can be pinned like a pad—come into use in the late 19th century, but aren’t patented until 1922.
The first commercially available pad hits the market: Lister’s Towels. However, menstruation is still a huge taboo, so women don’t want to be seen purchasing Lister’s Towels, and the product ends up a failure.
Pseudoscience on periods continues to get published. Professor B. Schick introduces the concept of “menotoxins”, a name for the poison in women’s menstrual flow that causes wine to spoil and flowers to wilt. Basically, men are still publishing Pliny’s outdated ideas on real platforms in the medical community.
French WWI nurses invent the modern pad when they use extra cellulose, a blend of acrylic cotton used for bandages, to soak up their menstrual blood. Kotex gets wind of the idea and develops a cellulose pad for commercial sale. Around the same time, Johnson & Johnson rebrand Lister’s Towels as “Nupak”, a name that won’t betray their purpose with similarly elusive packaging. Pad sales finally take off (at least amongst wealthy white women who frequent department stores). Consumers take a box of pads and leave a nickel on the department store counter for total discretion.
Tampons are on the market, but they’re applicator-free and quite leaky. Pads overtake tampon sales, boasting a “leak-free” solution.
The menstrual belt is finally patented. Menstrual belts remain a popular method of menstruation management.
Leona Chalmers invents the menstrual cup: a rubber cup that stays in the vaginal canal and collects menstrual fluid. The first advertisements for the menstrual cup appear, but it’s not a commercial success.
A man named Earl Haas invents the modern tampon: cotton, applicator, and all. Haas gets the idea from a female friend who manages her period by plugging her vaginal canal with a sponge. The key invention for Haas is the applicator, which allows women to insert tampons without touching their vaginas or menstrual blood. As vaginas (particularly menstruating ones) still carry cultural and religious taboos, many women feel uncomfortable engaging with their private parts, so the applicator is a big deal. Kotex passes on the tampon because they don’t think it will be a success. (Fun fact: a true ally to women, Earl Haas later invents the diaphragm, too.)
Gertrude Tendrich buys Earl Haas’s tampon patent and creates the company Tampax. Still, tampons are advertised to married women only, as people believe you can lose your virginity by using them.
O.b. Tampons are marketed as a smarter alternative to standard tampons with applicators. O.b. stands for “ohne binde” in German, which means “without napkins”.
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Stayfree markets the first ever pad with an adhesive strip, putting an end to menstrual belts.
Rely tampons hit the market. They’re ultra absorbent, made of polyester and carboxymethyl cellulose. Unfortunately, these materials also breed bacteria more easily than cotton, and TSS awareness hits the mainstream. Rely tampons are recalled in 1980.
Within the same month, two women are acquitted by British courts, one charged with murder and the other charged with intent to murder. The reason? PMS. (That’s right, PMS remains a legal defense on par with insanity right up through the 1980s.)
The word “period” is spoken out loud in a commercial for the first time ever by Courtney Cox, in an ad for Tampax.
Lybrel, a continuous use birth control, is the first of its kind to receive FDA approval. Now women can skip their periods entirely, with federal approval!
Menstrual cups come back into fashion as an environmentally safe alternative to pads and tampons.
The trend towards more transparency and broader consumer awareness leaves an opportunity for direct-to-consumer companies like Cora, Lola and Sustain Natural to launch 100% organic cotton tampons (followed by other organic feminine care products). Women care about what they put in their bodies and are receptive to alternative options.
Flex—a startup that sells new menstrual technology—introduces the menstrual disc. Menstrual discs differ from menstrual cups in size, shape, and fit in the body, but serve the same purpose. Flex raises over $1 million in funding within its first year.
Feminine care and the public opinion towards menstruation has certainly come a long way, but there is still a long road ahead. Today, we optimistically watch as more and more individuals and organizations continue to push to dissolve the taboo in (hopefully) this lifetime—because women shouldn’t have to wait another 5,000 years!
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