A Brief History of Period Products: From Sanitary Aprons to Period Undies
No one is saying period are fun, but the history of period products is such that, when compared to the women of yesterday, our modern conveniences are, well, divine.
Today we have medications to treat all our woes (some of us even have marijuana), for our femme are needs we have tampons, pads, and every other sort of product under the sun. It’s not always great, but to see just how good we have it now, let’s take a look back in time for a brief history of period products.
They were free bleeding in red tents in Biblical times, and the first mention of a menstrual pad (a rag) was allegedly when a 10th-century Greek woman, Hypatia, hurled one of her menstrual rags at “a gentleman caller” when she didn’t wish to be called up. The Ancients had to DIY it and made tampons out of small pieces of wood with lint, moss, animal skin, or grasses wrapped around it in addition to their menstrual rags.
Like Hypatia, women used old rags which they washed and reused, hence creating the cringe-worthy phrase, “on the rag,” as a colloquialism for having one’s period. Women who lived on farms used sheepskin which they recycled by boiling it clean. For ladies-on-the-go, a cheesecloth sack stuffed with cotton was the predecessor to the pads we know and love today. Once used, they would pitch the cotton, wash the cheesecloth, and stuff it with cotton again.
A new (frightening!) development hits the scene, Sanitary Sponges. These are sponges encased in a silk netting which functioned similarly to a tampon; however, they were actually marketed for their primary use—as a contraceptive (which were illegal at this time in history).
The first commercial sanitary pads are created by Johnson & Johnson. They were called “lister towels.” Sadly, they didn’t catch on because women were too ashamed to buy the pads, thus admitting to the public that yes, they were menstruating.
The early 1900s:
Women would pin rags and cotton to their underwear as makeshift pads since more and more women were working outside of the home. Women would additionally wear sanitary aprons and bloomers under their clothing, which were made of heavy material, to shield their clothes from the leaks that were certain to occur.
French WWI nurses realized that Curad bandages were more absorbent than the rags they used previously for their periods; however, they had to wear a sanitary belt with them. To prevent the shame game from happening again as with the first sanitary pad, drug store owners sold them near the cash register, so women could discreetly slip in and out of the store to make their purchases without having to actually talk to anyone. These products were made by a familiar name, Kotex.
The Great Depression brought about the first commercial tampon! Dr. Earle Haas invented the first tampon with an applicator and called his brand, Tampax. They were on the market by 1936.
The menstrual cup in its first incarnation arrives. It was a reusable cup, and by that time, women were spoiled with disposable menstrual products (after centuries of wash, rinse, and repeat), so they didn’t catch on. There have been additional attempts to use the recyclable menstrual cup in the 1950s and 1970s to no great fanfare. Maybe in our eco-friendly world today they will finally catch on.
The first applicator-less tampon is made.
Kotex starts individually wrapping pads for increased hygiene and ease of travel.
Finally! Pads with adhesive backings hit the market. So long belts and pins! This decade also sees the improvement of ‘winged’ pads. In an environmentally conscious time, cloth pads make a small comeback.
Proctor and Gamble make a super absorbent tampon, which then leads to hundreds of cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome, including some fatalities. The upside? Stricter regulations are put in place for women’s menstrual products.
Everything gets thinner and smaller to appear more discreet.
Just when you thought they’d run out of ways to deal with your period, the industry goes and surprises you! Period panties specially designed underware that absorb moisture and control leaks. They empower women to forgo other products like tampons or pads. For women with a trigger-happy period or heavy flow, they are also a great addition to your menstruation arsenal as a back-up method incase your primary method fails. These underware are not only high-tech, but very fashion-forward and comfortable. You can choose from different colors and sizes according to your comfort and flow.
This bring us to today where we have everything from Moon Cups to menstrual disks, period products for every mood. What’s perhaps even better that all this product dev? An evolved attitude (some places) that is committed to removing the stigma from the very natural function of menstruation every woman endures for an estimated 40 years of her life. This may be our greatest innovation yet. Stay tuned.