Hard to believe since menstruation is nothing new, but until recently women have been left to fend for themselves to figure out how to deal with the practical issues presented by their monthly flow. That is, what to do with the blood. From scraps of rags to natural materials such as sea sponges, women (and some creative men) have devised a number of ways to handle menstruation.
Currently there are a variety of femcare products from which women can choose: pads, liners, tampons, and menstrual cups. When you consider there are still places on the planet where young girls and women must isolate themselves during menstruation due to religious standards or cultural norms, the array of femcare products to which most women have easy access throughout the world have truly had a liberating effect.
A number of developments and changes in attitude about menstruation and related products have occurred through history, some quite creative and even effective. It is fascinating to see how women’s options have evolved. The following timeline highlights some of these milestones and offers interesting tidbits about how these developments may have had an impact on cultural and overall attitudes about menstruation as well.
Egyptian women used softened papyrus for tampons. In Greece, tampons were rigged out of lint wrapped around small pieces of wood. And in Rome, pads and tampons were made of soft wool. In other parts of the world paper, moss, wool, animal skins and grass were used to fashion ways to absorb menstrual flow.
Charles Goodyear invented the technology to vulcanize rubber, which was used in manufacturing condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes, and the “womb veil,” also known as the diaphragm.
Intrepid inventors patented a wide variety of products: catamenial sacks and bandages, as well as receptacles made out of springs, wire, buttons, flaps, elastic straps, valves and girdles. Not many made it to market.
The Comstock Act was passed, making it a federal crime to distribute or sell pornography or conception-related materials or text in the United States. In response, the birth control industry coined the term “feminine hygiene” to advertise their repackaged, OTC products.
Lister’s Towels, the first commercial sanitary pads, went on sale. Produced by Johnson & Johnson (and named for Joseph Lister, a pioneer in sterile surgery) and arguably too avant-garde for the prudish times, they sank like a proverbial rock.
Many American women used homemade pads, often rigged out of “bird’s eye,” the same absorbent cotton material used for baby diapers. They would pin these cloths, or rags, to their underwear or to homemade muslin belts. Sanitary aprons and bloomers were available by mail and were designed to protect clothing from staining, not to absorb blood flow.
Midol, marketed as a remedy for headaches and toothaches, went on sale. Eventually, it would become synonymous with menstrual pain relief.
When nurses in France realized that the cellulose bandages they were using on wounded soldiers absorbed blood much better than plain old cotton, they started using them for their own flow.
Kotex (a combination of “cotton” and “texture”) landed in stores. Disposable pads, while a big step forward when it came to convenience, couldn’t be worn without reusable sanitary belts. Kimberly-Clark encouraged storeowners to display Kotex on their counters, along with a discreet box for money. This neatly sidestepped the need for any customer to actually have to say the words “sanitary napkin” or “menstruation” out loud. Also, a revolution in fashions: women’s underwear became closed crotched, which was far better for holding a belt and pad in place.
Johnson & Johnson introduced Modess, Kotex’s major competitor in a field of literally hundreds of sanitary pad manufacturers.
For years, Lysol disinfectant was used as a female contraceptive, as well as a kitchen and bathroom cleanser. Even though it didn’t actually prevent pregnancy, ads touted it as “a feminine hygiene product for married women,” code for birth control. A similar brand, Zonite, played on women’s fears of feminine odor.
Lenoa Chalmers patented and produced the first reusable menstrual cup. Yet after the advent of disposable products, not many women wanted to handle their own blood when they could simply flush or throw it away.
Dr. Earle Haas files for a tampon patent—the first to incorporate an applicator, the tube-within-a-tube design that’s still used today. Gertrude Tendrich bought the patent for $32,000 and founded Tampax in 1933. At first she made tampons at home, using a sewing machine and Dr. Haas’s compression machine.
The “Modess...because” print campaign was launched, turning menstrual advertising into a showcase for high-end couture and fashion photography.
Pursettes, a nonapplicator tampon with a lubricated tip, went on sale. Tampon cases were also for sale (separately) so teenage girls—their target audience—could effectively hide tampons in their purses.
While the Catholic Church was adamantly opposed to artificial birth control, Pope Pius XII announced that the Church would sanction the “rhythm method.”
Menstrual cups got a second chance when Tassette reintroduced them, this time with a big advertising push. Women still weren’t interested, and the cup disappeared again.
Enovid, the first birth control pill, was approved by the FDA. While the Pill revolutionized contraception and jump-started the sexual revolution, it had dangerous side effects, including life-threatening blood clots and heart attacks. It turns out the dosage was ten times higher than it needed to be.
The Feminine Mystique was published, and Betty Friedan gave a voice to multitudes of discontented housewives across the country. Friedan hypothesized that women were victimized by the belief that a woman’s identity came from the traditional roles of wife and mother.
Stayfree minipads, the first sanitary pads with adhesive strips, went on sale, signaling the end of belts, clips, and safety pins for millions of women.
The young adult novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was published. For generations, Judy Blume let girls live vicariously through the realities of puberty, preteen angst, first kisses, and first periods. Blume was the first author to incorporate the issue of first menstruation into a fictional storyline.
Menstrual extraction hit the scene. Lorraine Rothman and Carol Downer toured the country, encouraging women to join self-help groups and extract each other’s menses. The goal was to reduce the duration of a woman’s periods, but it could also remove a fertilized egg. It was immensely popular and over 20,000 procedures were performed. After Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in 1973, the popularity of menstrual extractions waned.
Kimberly-Clark joined the beltless generation with New Freedom pads. The National Association of Broadcasters lifted its ban on television advertising of sanitary napkins, tampons, and douches. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Eisenstadt v. Baird that a state (in this case, Massachusetts) could not prohibit the sale of contraceptives to unmarried women.
Our Bodies, Ourselves was published. Written for women, by women, it dealt frankly with menstruation, birth control, childbirth, menopause, sexuality, mental health, and many other issues that had been taboo to discuss.
Rely tampons (“we even absorb the worry”) went on sale. Proctor & Gamble took Rely off the market in 1980 after the tampons were linked to deadly Toxic Shock Syndrome.
Courteney Cox Arquette used the word “period” for the first time in a TV commercial.
The Keeper, yet another incarnation of the reusable menstrual cup, went on sale. These were somewhat successful and are still on the market.
The medical profession announced that regular douching was bad for the vagina, altering its pH balance, which could promote infection. Even so, women continue to spend millions of dollars on douching products.
A completely new menstrual product, Fresh ‘n’ Fit Padettes, went on sale. A super minipad for light days, it was designed to be tucked horizontally between the folds of the labia. Studies showed women were initially enthusiastic about them, but they soon disappeared.
The FDA approved the first continuous birth control pill, which both suppresses periods and provides birth control. Women taking Seasonale have just four menstrual periods a year. However, a study to determine long-term safety for adolescents have not yet been done or published.
Lybrel is approved by the FDA—the first birth control pill to eliminate periods altogether. That being said, the Web site freely admits that women may experience “menstrual cramps and vaginal bleeding.”