The modern tampon debuted with much fanfare (and skepticism) in the 1930s, and it has since changed the game for menstrual cycles. Given how tampons are now a staple of period products, it’s hard to imagine what came before it. After all, menstruation has existed since forever.
Since the beginning of time, humans have hunted for menstruation products that hit a few key criteria: It must be discreet, it must be safe and nontoxic, and (of course) it must be highly absorbent to prevent leaks.
Ancient civilizations came up with clever ways to reach these goals, according to Elissa Stein and Susan Kim in their book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation. In Egypt, softened papyrus served as an early form of tampons. The Greeks also went the tampon route—using lint wrapped around wooden sticks. The Romans used soft wool, the Japanese used paper, and Native Americans were known for using moss for tampons and buffalo skin for pads.
The Era of “Feminine Hygiene Products”
Products for menstrual cycles became a market venture in the 19th century. In the centuries before that, most women just took care of business with rags, sponges, and other makeshift fabrics.
Suddenly, inventors were introducing elaborate devices for absorbing period blood with a variety of sacks, bandages, and receptacles that came with springs, buttons, flaps, straps, and girdles. However, few of these crazy concoctions actually made it to market, according to Stein and Kim.
All these inventions needed a name. This was the Victorian Era, which placed an extreme importance on propriety, sexual restraint, and modesty. Anything involving “bathroom stuff,” whether going to the bathroom or having a period, was to be hidden and not talked about.
It’s no surprise that the term “feminine hygiene” was introduced at this time. The Comstock Act was passed in 1873, which made it illegal to sell pornography and even birth control in the U.S. Feminine hygiene was originally the term for over-the-counter birth control products, but eventually was expanded to include period products.
Just before the end of the 19th century, the U.S. saw its first sanitary pad for sale. They were called Lister’s Towels, and were produced by Johnson & Johnson. This could have been revolutionary, yet the pads were too “avante-garde for the prudish times,” says Stein and Kim, so they “sank like a proverbial rock.”
Instead, Victorian women preferred to stick to their homemade pads, which they pinned to their underwear. (And they could probably get away with it, considering how layered and voluminous the fashion was at the time.) They may have said “no” to Lister’s Towels, but women were about to see a major change in their period regimens.
Commercial Period Products Go Mainstream
Ordering commercial menstrual products from catalogs (remember Sears?) became more popular at the start of the 20th century. An early option was sanitary bloomers, which were essentially cumbersome diapers that notoriously breeded infections due to the hot, warm environment.
A big breakthrough came after World War I. French nurses accidentally discovered on the job that the bandages they used (made from cellucotton) absorbed blood from the wounded soldiers better than the cotton rags they had been using for their periods. This revolutionized the period product industry.
Enter, Kotex. Kotex sanitary pads used the leftover cellucotton from World War I to introduce this revolutionary item—sold for five cents each. They’re not the same as today’s pads, however; that all-important adhesive backing didn’t exist yet, and sanitary pads had to be worn using a sanitary belt that held the pad in place. (The pad was disposable; the belt was reusable.)
And then came Tampax. In the 1930s, American women were inundated with a marketing campaign assuring the safety, invisibility, comfort, and trendiness of a new product: Disposable tampons with an applicator created by the physician Earle Cleveland Haas. The marketing was successful: By a 1944 survey, a quarter of U.S. women stated they used tampons, according to the New York Academy of Medicine.
The applicator was key to its success. It might seem like it’s just for ease and convenience, but the applicator actually helped quell a real fear at the time: Women were uncomfortable “touching themselves,” or having their daughters touch themselves, and the applicator (and the string) allowed the individual to insert (and pull out) the tampon without any contact with the genitals.
That’s probably why tampons became more popular than the menstrual cup—which actually saw its first design and patent in the 1930s (yep!).
Products for Today’s Period
While disposable menstrual products were (and still are) all the rage, reusable period products are making a comeback. Thanks to the environmental movement, more and more people are choosing menstrual cups (like DivaCup), absorbent underwear (like THINX), and cloth pads (like GladRags). All of these can be washed and reused to reduce waste and even save money.
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