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A Brief History of Feminine Hygiene Products

Kotex ad from 1957

One of the great joys of writing articles for Medium is the complete editorial freedom. I can, and do, write on any subject that interests me, and after years of penning articles-for-hire about air conditioning, water filtration, Botox, and sanitation services, I delight in this fresh air of whimsy.

That’s why I’d like to talk to you about the history of feminine hygiene.

If you’re an XY chromosome, don’t be put off by the subject matter. Knowledge is power, and there is an appalling amount of ignorance about menstruation on both sides of the gender divide. Nearly 40% of Britons mislabeled the clitoris — the clitoris! — irrespective of sex. To be fair, it pays to remember that without the assistance of a mirror, women can’t see their vulvas the way a man sees (and is constantly aware) of his penis. The very thing that makes them women is a mystery, even to themselves, and that has profound, even global, ramifications.

So, first, a primer on the purpose of menstruation.

The Vagina Is A Self-Cleaning Oven

It is little different than the lachrymose fluid your eyes produce, except that it’s a monthly power wash of unused uterine tissue. Menstrual blood is not inherently “gross,” or “unclean”; it’s actually a sign that your body is healthy.

You wouldn’t know that if you took the cultural pulse on this subject, however. Women — not without reason — think menstruating is a pain in the ass. Men tend to recoil in horror at the thought of it, even though seminal fluid has just as much “icky” bacteria in it, and danger-wise, could rightly be classified as a biological weapon.

It is this writer’s considered opinion that the ignorance surrounding menstruation in general and periods in particular reflect a worldwide misogyny. If the very thing that makes a woman a woman is a subject of horror and disgust, what chance does a woman ever have of feeling comfortable enough with her vagina, and by extension her own sexuality, to fully inhabit it?

Imagine a world where it is finally understood that the fate of civilization hangs in the balance of the vagina. Women create humans. If that’s not a superpower, I don’t know what is.

Because that power engenders fear, a very specific appropriation occurs when a child isn’t “born” until he or she is baptized. The Church has done its utmost to minimize a woman’s contribution to the perpetuation of the species. Even the architectural configuration of a church is designed to supersede the female anatomy: the aisle is the vaginal canal, the altar is the womb, the north and south transepts are the ovaries.

If a woman’s power were truly recognized, no one would dare kill Her creations, just as no one would dare despoil our ultimate mother, the planet. We will pay for that disrespect in ways we cannot yet fathom. If you put your ear to the ground, you can almost hear Mother Nature gearing up for the cosmic punch.

The Genealogy of Aunt Flo

We have our first mention of menstrual pads as early as 10th century Greece when a woman is said to have thrown one of her used rags at an unwanted admirer. Before disposable Kotex and tampons became mainstream in the 60s and 70s, women used damn near anything they could find to absorb the blood. According to Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, women in Ancient Egypt rolled up papyrus as tampons. Given the stiff, non-absorbent nature of papyrus, I can’t imagine that being effective or comfortable. There are accounts of Roman women creating tampons by wrapping lint around wood. Native Americans made pads out of moss and buffalo skin — arguably, the most comfortable alternative. Rags, knitted pads, rabbit fur, even grass were all used by women to stem the tide. Bear in mind, cloth was expensive, so it had to be washed and reused.

I’ve read scholarly dissertations by researchers like Sara Read claiming that women of early modern Europe bled lightly, if at all, due to nutritional deficiencies, which meant they just bled on their clothes. I vigorously oppose this idea. First, nutritional deficiencies affected different socioeconomic groups in different ways. The poorest of the poor may have suffered from nutritionally-induced amenorrhea, or cessation of menses, but middle-class and wealthy women likely did not, which meant they bled. And no one, not even the rich, wanted to besmirch their costly clothes.

Louis-Leopold Boilly, 18th century woman using a bidet

What is true is that women menstruated less often because they spent more of their fertile years being pregnant or breastfeeding. If you’re pregnant, you aren’t menstruating. If you’re lactating, you’re not menstruating. If you have five or six kids, that’s ten years of your menstrual life that you’re not menstruating.

After giving birth, a woman bleeds heavily for four-to-six weeks as her reproductive organs try to reset the thermostat, which is why in 1896, Lister’s Towels became the first sanitary napkin for sale, as part of a “maternity kit” given to new mothers. Although Lister’s Towels were originally intended to absorb postpartum bleeding, women quickly realized the pads could be used for menstruation. Being able to dispose of a used napkin was a revolutionary concept. This freed up a lot of time and labor for women who no longer needed to furtively scrub blood off their sanitary rags.

Rubber bloomers. For real, yo.

World War I also drove innovation when it came to women’s periods. The cellulose used for bandages absorbed huge amounts of blood. Women started using cellulose instead of cotton, which led to the creation of commercial products like Kotex, which were disposable, but not self-adhesive since sanitary belts with hooks or safety pins were still required.

Because of the shame surrounding this most natural of female functions, shopping for commercial hygiene products became an ordeal for women. Kotex instructed shop owners to leave the products on the counter along with a box where women could drop in money, thus ensuring privacy as well as discretion.

During the 30s, an inventor named Leona Chalmers patented the menstrual cup, although even today, the cup is still considered “alternative.” In 1929, Dr. Earl Haas created the tampon, which Kotex dismissed as unusable. Businesswoman Gertrude Tenderich liked his idea, however, and in 1936, the company Tampax was formed. This, of course, led to that stickiest, most absurd and repulsive of misogynist issues, the idea of a tampon disrupting a woman’s “virginity.”

Pads were widely considered more appropriate for unmarried women. There was a fear that a tampon could “sully” a girl before she’d had sexual intercourse. In the spirit of true capitalism, the brand Pursettes conjured up a pre-lubed tampon, designed for easier, less “damaging” insertion.

A box of 36 tampons in the United States costs $7.00, on average. Until 2019, there was a 22% VAT tax on sanitary products in Italy. In India, many shopkeepers don’t even stock them. Which gives you some idea of just how problematic it is to be a woman.

With the increasing number of feminine hygiene providers came the urgency to distinguish a product. Deodorant tampons, for instance, which are completely unnecessary and potentially toxic. Synthetic tampons, which caused Toxic Shock Syndrome and were promptly recalled.

If TV commercials are, in many respects, a bellwether of modern-day culture, it wasn’t until 1985 for the word “period” to be said on television. Behold this Tampax commercial starring a young Courtney Cox who, without batting an eye, managed to say the unspeakable:

Now, we have birth control pills and IUDs that can virtually eliminate the period. I’m not a research scientist or an ob/gyn, but I have grave reservations about these products. I admit to kicking it old school — a woman’s body needs to bleed. While recognizing that some women suffer debilitating periods and require pharmaceutical help, many others are adopting such practices simply because they’re convenient, without recognizing the potentially dangerous disruption to their body’s natural cycles.

I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before, and I’ll be wrong again. But I do believe further research is needed before we jump aboard this period-free bandwagon.

What are your thoughts about periods? I’m firmly of the opinion that people need to engage in a free and open discussion of this “taboo” subject, regardless of gender. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What are your thoughts about periods? I’m firmly of the opinion that people need to engage in a free and open discussion of this “taboo” subject, regardless of gender. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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