Friday, August 7, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #116: The History of Menstrual Products

If you’re one of those dudes who gets all completely freaked out at the mere mention of menstruation or any of its associated commercial products, you might want to consider not reading this post. Some other things you might want to consider include growing the fuck up.

As a person who is biologically female, I’ve often wondered what women did before the days of tampons and sanitary napkins – although normally, these feelings would be superseded by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I was born in the days of routine vaccinations, indoor plumbing, and women’s rights. My child psychologist (because I had that kind of childhood) once told me, to my horror, that when she was a girl self-adhesive sanitary napkins hadn’t been invented yet, so she had to wear a belt to which the sanitary napkin would attach on both ends, in the manner, I imagined, of a loincloth.

More or less.

What did women use before the invention of sanitary napkins and tampons? For centuries, women relied on strips of folded cloth. The earliest recorded mention of sanitary napkins appears in the Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the classical world. Fourth-century Greek philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, Hypatia, is also said to have rejected a gentleman caller by flinging her used menstrual cloth at him.

My kind of woman.

Tampons were not unheard of in the ancient world. They are mentioned in the world’s oldest medical document, the Papyrus Ebers, which discusses the Egyptian use of tampons made of soft papyrus as far back as the fifteenth century B.C., aka a damn long time ago. The ancient Greeks wrapped lint around small slivers of wood to make tampons (ouch). Roman women used tampons made of wool, while Japanese women used paper tampons that had to be changed 10 to 12 times a day (omg fuck that). Native Hawaiian women fashioned tampons from a furry, native fern known as hapu’u, and throughout Asia, women still use mosses, grasses, and other plant materials to make tampons to this day.

The first cotton tampons were actually invented for use in medicine in the 18th century, when they were treated with salicylic acid (which you may recognize as the main ingredient in aspirin) and used to staunch the bleeding from gunshot wounds. Tampons are still classified medical devices in many countries today, including the United States, where they may continue to serve their original purpose in the operating theater.

Image by Shattonsbury~commonswiki at Wikimedia Commons.

The first commercial sanitary napkins were available near the end of the 19th century, with the first American sanitary napkin being Lister’s Towels, marketed by Johnson & Johnson in 1896. Sanitary napkins failed to catch on with American women for some time, due to a combination of (allegedly) widespread prudishness and the fact that they were cost prohibitive for many women.

Throughout the early years of the 20th century, women continued to deal with their periods much as they had always done, by using homemade products. Women’s underwear of the time was crotchless, so women held cloth sanitary napkins in place by pinning them to their underwear or wearing a homemade sanitary belt. Most women fashioned homemade menstrual pads out of the same absorbent fabric they used for their babies’ diapers. For traveling, women would stuff a cloth sack with flattened cotton. The used cotton could be thrown away and the reusable sack filled afresh as needed. Many women wore specially designed bloomers or sanitary aprons to protect their clothes from stains.

Disposable pads entered the scene in the 1920s, when Kotex pads were first marketed. Shopkeepers would save women the embarrassment of asking for these products out loud by placing a money box on the counter next to the Kotex so female customers could take a box and pay discreetly. It was during this decade, too, that women started wearing closed-crotch underwear, which made it easier to hold the newly fashionable disposable sanitary napkins in place. Though the first self-adhesive menstrual pads appeared in 1969, women continued wearing sanitary belts and napkins until the early 1980s. I didn’t realize they hung around that long, because after the aforementioned session with the child psychologist, I went home and asked my mother if she had ever needed a belt to hold up her maxi pad.

She replied, “No, Mom bought me the self-adhesive ones.”

Way to be progressive, Grandma.