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When you think about it, this is some really provincial technology. Image via Wikimedia Commons

When period panties first began appearing in Facebook ads and blog posts in 2014 and 2015, many potential consumers eyed them with both skepticism and tentative excitement. The marketing was slick, sure, but it’s what the panties represented that was truly tempting.

Because, though alternatives to wasteful, inconvenient, leak-prone tampons and pads had circled the periphery in the past, panties like those made by Dear Kate and THINX were indicative of a legitimately exciting new notion: that the menstrual-product industry might actually be a place for innovation.

The new period panty, designed to absorb menstrual blood and reduce reliance on pads and tampons, was embraced more wholeheartedly than previous period-disrupting products. The concept felt more novel than the Lunette or the DivaCup, for example, which gave new life to an old-timey mechanism for catching one’s monthly flow. And while LunaPads reduced waste by using more sustainable materials, they failed to generate the buzz enjoyed by the period panty.

While absorbent undies are also somewhat rooted in history — it’s not at all surprising that people have been using undergarments to manage their menses for eons — this new era of wicking wonders is different in that manufacturers are using new technologies for the sole purpose of making that time of the month less difficult.

And that’s really quite rare.

Looking at the history of menstrual products, it’s grossly apparent that there has been very little invention, transformation, or discovery when it comes to reducing the inconvenience and mess of a person’s menses. Though people have been menstruating regularly, often, and in large volumes since the dawn of time, relatively little effort has been made to improve the experience. The result? Today’s period products are surprisingly archaic — especially when compared to previous generations.

Period Care Through the Ages: A DIY Affair

In a post featuring an early 20th-century instruction manual for crafting menstrual belts at home, Harry Finley, curator at the Museum of Menstruation, notes that “Japanese women made their own menstrual pads, tampons, sponges, etc., before they were available commercially, probably just like women almost everywhere.”

Which is extremely accurate — and also indicates why there have been so few innovations on the menstrual-care front in the past, oh, 2,000 years.

Period care has, in many ways, been viewed solely as the purview of those most affected — historically, the burden has fallen mostly on women and girls. Throw in some Biblical body shaming (more on that later) and the general belief that something is wrong and dirty about the very system that makes pregnancy possible, and you have a recipe for stalled innovation — not to mention a lack of general interest.

Which means people who menstruate have been using their own ingenuity to engineer solutions since people first walked upright and began clothing themselves. In many cultures, this solution took the form of a kind of plug fashioned from wool, grass, ferns, textiles, sea sponges, and just about anything that might absorb the flow.

Or, depending on where you lived and what your faith was, you may have been sent off to a separate abode to sit around and free-bleed until you were permitted to come back. The Old Testament, of course, teaches us that “whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days,” noting that “anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening.” This meant any and all handling of periods had to be done discretely, using materials that weren’t considered particularly important — which dramatically limited the scope of what a person might use.

Period care remained tricky well into the 20th century, because, for much of human existence, women around the world mostly wore skirts, saris, or other kinds of wraps. Prior to the game-changing shift toward trousers for women in the late 1800s and early 1900s, undergarments were generally nonexistent, and most garments lacked any kind of crotch. This made it difficult to directly apply the necessary staunching material during that time of the month.

In the Western world, where underthings were more common (at least, for people with some degree of expendable income), women’s unmentionables still weren’t particularly amenable to period products, as they typically covered the front, back, and sides — but rarely the part in between. Panties as we think of them them today just weren’t a thought in much of the world, let alone a potential place to look for period solutions.

In both instances, people turned to transvaginal methods (like menstrual cups) or to absorbent contraptions, rigging up belts and wearing undergarments that could hold an additional cloth or pad in place for absorption (like diapers). Sanitary aprons (basically belted sheets worn under a dress to cover your backside) were sold to limit staining and make it easier to hide the fact that you were on your period.

These devices were some of the first to be sold commercially. (An 1896 product known as Lister’s Towels had flopped in part because purchasing period products seemed a little too risqué.) Instead of sewing your own pads, sanitary aprons and belts could be purchased from Sears and other mail-order vendors — which was a big deal and one of the first modern period breakthroughs.

A Kotex ad from 1920 underscores the convenience and affordability of disposable pads. Via the Library of Congress

Big Changes Finally Come for Flo

In the 1920s and ’30s, when women became more liberated and undergarments began to look more like what we imagine today, beltless, disposable sanitary pads became one of the first major innovations in menstrual products. To keep these pads in place, sanitary panties — which had a space for the pad — debuted as an alternative. (Interestingly, this type of period panty has also seen a slight resurgence in the past few years.)

Pad technology itself also underwent a substantial change following World War I, when cellulose, rather than cotton, was first used. The material, which wartime nurses noticed was especially good at staunching blood on the battlefields (Tampax would later provide the material in World War II), was incorporated into menstrual products and quickly became much more popular than cotton. And because cellulose was disposable, it offered a new consumable good and potential for profit.

However, because menstrual-product development takes a long time and adoption is often slow, many people still used belts. While more convenient and comfortable, as this ad from the 1960s for a Modess belt and pad shows, the panty remained a secondary choice to the belt for many years.

An ad in a 1948 edition of Ladies Home Journal promises a softer choice for “problem days.”

These changes to the fundamental technology and method of use opened the door for other new developments—the first adhesive pad became available in 1969.

Another big change happened between World War I and II: The tampon and menstrual cup both came to market in a big way. Tampons were first created in 1929, but it was Tampax’s purchase of the patent that introduced them to the mainstream. Though some sort of “intervaginal” device was batted around in scientific communities since before the turn of the 20th century, actual tampons weren’t made available in the United States until 1936.

Cups, which have been around since the 1860s, were made available to the general public in 1937—though the war made it tough to acquire the necessary rubber to keep up on production.

At the time, many consumers jumped at the chance to take care of their period needs more discreetly — though many were still deeply uncomfortable with (and even morally opposed to) using something that actually went inside.

In the 1940s, as women flooded the workplace, tampon sales exploded. Competition began to heat up, and manufacturers experimented with new and different sizes, wrappers, and applicators. The competition spurred innovation well into the early 2000s, when the plastic applicator “became a staple,” according to Tampax.

Unfortunately, cups didn’t take off quite as well. The first major brand name in cups, Tassette, made a product that looked almost identical to cups on the market today but had a difficult time getting women to embrace the idea of dumping and cleaning their devices. The company went out of businesses after just over a decade of production, leaving tampons and adhesive pads to rule the market.

Oh, How Far We Haven’t Come

In 2002, Saturday Night Live aired a commercial for a product called Kotex Classic. Featuring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the bit was meant to skewer the idea of the throwback trend by demonstrating how far we’ve come. And while it’s true that in 2002, people with periods did have slightly less bulky, complicated options (like tampons and pads that affix to your underpants), it’s also true that in the 30 years since adhesive napkins debuted, not much else had changed. The belt was gone, but for the most part, period care was the same as it ever was.

Computers, cellphones, cars, medicine, and travel have all changed monumentally in the past half-century — but aside from the new wave of period panties, menstrual products still look strikingly similar.

There are a handful of reasons for this, including the gender gap in the field of research and development, as well as a lack of women investing in new technologies and inventions. In an interview with the podcast Stuff Your Mom Never Told You, Julie Sygiel, CEO of Dear Kate, explained that getting funding for the startup was difficult for this reason.

“I’ve been in front of a lot of investors, the majority of them are men,” Sygiel explains, “and…even when sometimes a male investor is saying, ‘This is an amazing concept, I understand the concept, I understand the product, but because it’s not something that I would be a customer of and something that I would wear, I don’t feel comfortable investing.’”

But it’s not as though the menstrual-product industry is especially risky: More than $35 billion is spent annually worldwide on menstruation products — more than $5 billion is spent in the United States alone. And now that environmentally conscious millennials are eschewing wasteful tampons and pads, there’s an opening in the market for smarter developments.

Period innovation isn’t just about girls needing a better option for their lazy Netflix-and-brunch Sundays, either; it’s critical for economic development.

Millions of menstruating people struggle to afford or gain access to period products, leaving entire communities in need. Period underwear, menstrual cups, and other reusable items can be a lifeline for refugees, as well as for individuals who are incarcerated, living in poverty, or homeless.

On the other hand, it’s not entirely surprising that few people are talking about the very real need for an alternative to the landfill-bound pad and the toilet-clogging tampon; even the words “menstruation,” “period,” and “tampon” were considered too hot for TV until the Reagan years.

There are decades of shame and discomfort around the crimson tide, and bold companies with fresh products are doing some of the most important work to undo it.

So while it’s nice that you’ve probably never had to use a sanitary belt in your life, it’s worth wondering why you’re using basically the same product as someone who was menstruating before women had the right to vote.