A Look Back at Menstrual Products Throughout History

Modern-day menstruators don’t realize how lucky we have it. We live in a world where everything is at our fingertips. Our periods start and usually we reach for something we have on hand conveniently. But how did people throughout history handle menstruation?  Let’s stroll back in time and look at some of the products people used. Spoiler: Some will make you grateful you were born in this era.  

Ancient World

Menstruators in ancient Egypt were a clever bunch and historians believe that they made the first tampons out of the abundant papyrus in the region.

The Romans learned to insert sticks wrapped in bandages, into a similarly home-fashioned tampon.

It’s worthy to mention that some cultures completely isolated menstruators in separated tents or huts. Anita Diamant famously wrote about this issue in her novel, The Red Tent. However, cultures from India to Latin America have practiced menstrual seclusion—and some still do.

Medieval Times

Experts do not believe the menstrual creativity of the Egyptians and Romans carried through to the Dark Ages.

Menstruators in Medieval times lived without the convenience of any menstrual products. Likely due to the strict religious dogma, it was not socially acceptable for menstruators to complain about cramps, other bothersome symptoms, or much less discuss menstruation to any great degree.  

And because they did not use any material to stem the flow, they bled into their clothing. Before you imagine that every day in a medieval village looked like the Prom scene in the movie Carrie, think again.

We menstruate more now and heavier due to our modern diet. We also have a longer life expectancy and fewer children. Although it was probably not uncommon to see stained clothing.

Modern Times

Sanitary Apron

In the late 1800s, physicians grew concerned that it might be unsanitary to bleed into the same clothes day after day. However, there was no race to develop innovative menstrual products, and many new ones weren’t successful because people hesitated to advertise or even discuss them.  

One of the stranger ones was a sanitary apron. It is exactly as it sounds, a thick apron that the wearer put on backward under their clothes to prevent stains, complete with a pad holder for the inside of the apron. They were thick, rubbery, uncomfortable, and stinky.

Homemade Pads

Up until this time, many folks had simply bled into their clothes, used rags, or what they could find in nature. In this modern era, there was a determined effort to make reusable pads. People sewed homemade menstrual pads at home to meet their needs. Norwegians even made cute crocheted pads.

In fact, The Museum of Menstruation notes that English Inns in the 1800s had special portable burners for the sole purpose of burning menstrual pads for bashful travelers.

Disposable Pads

In 1888, Lister’s Towels was a novel product. They were a menstrual pad that was completely disposable. And they were also a complete failure. People were too embarrassed to talk about menstruation and thus too ashamed to purchase a pack of Lister’s Towels.

However, one thing that Lister’s Towels did was they paved the way for Kotex. And Kotex capitalized on the cotton-acrylic blend bandages that were overflowing from World War I. French nurses already used them for their menses, so Kotex quickly marketed the product to wealthy people stateside who had the luxury to buy them discreetly, one at a time.

Menstrual Belts

In the 1920s the first patents for menstrual belts hit the scene. The first belts held thick washable pads in place with two straps or clips. Over the years, there have been many different iterations of the belt, perhaps none so iconic as the “Hoosier” Sanitary Belt. Their marketing never once mentioned menstruation, as they considered the words “sanitary” and “belt” to be graphic enough.

The First Menstrual Cup

Leona Chambers patented the first menstrual cup in the 1930s, and even though it was much more effective than anything currently on the market, people at the time did not want to touch anything bloody. So hardly anyone bought it.

Tampons

Earle Hass designed the tampon as we know it today in 1931, with a cardboard applicator. The idea was that it could be inserted without ever touching your body.

Riding high on their recent pad success, Kotex passed on the patent. Gertrude Tendrich saw an opportunity and pounced. She later founded Tampax.

Tampax spent a lot of space in its early marketing material explaining to consumers how to use their product and dispelling common myths at the time.

Pads with Adhesive 

In 1969, Stayfree launched the first beltless pads. A few years later, their direct competitor, New Freedom came out with their own adhesive pad, responding to a greater cultural shift in the market that craved more freedom of movement.

The Rise of Reusable Products

In the early 2000s, health-conscious and green consumers audibly shifted to reusable menstrual products like menstrual cups, harkening back to simpler times.

In 2000, Luci Daum sold her first reusable cloth menstrual pads in Chequamegon Food Co-Op. She had been giving them away to friends and family for a couple of years already. She sensed that menstruators were looking for a comfortable and sustainable solution to disposable menstrual products, and she was right. 

Today, Party in My Pants has a team of 15 people and has stitched over one million reusable cloth pads for menstruators all over the world. There are 15 different sizes of pads so that there is one that works for everyone’s body. That’s not to mention the plethora of exciting fabric options.

Fortunately, menstrual products have evolved a lot, and we no longer need to use sticks, rags, or uncomfortable belts. PiMPs makes it easy to choose something good for us and the environment.

Was there a menstrual product that surprised you? Tell us which one!

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