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The Evolution of Menstrual Products

Disclaimer: Although the author has used the word women in this article, we do recognise and respect that it is not only women who have periods and undergo similar experiences.

The average woman today has far more periods than she would have had centuries ago. Not only do women get their first period at a younger age now, we also tend to have fewer children. Earlier, women spent most of their fertile years pregnant, which put menstruation on hold. As the menstrual experience changed, so did the products used to manage it. Let’s take a look at the evolution of menstrual products.

The concept of absorbing menstrual blood is nothing new. Women in Egypt used papyrus as tampons whereas women in Greece and Rome wrapped lint around wood to create tampons. In Ancient Japan, women turned to paper to absorb blood while the Native Americans made pads out of moss and buffalo skin.

The 1800s: The First Disposable Napkin

As women were pregnant multiple times, they had fewer periods, which meant they didn’t have to deal with blood stains that often. In 1896, Lister’s Towels became the first disposable sanitary napkin for sale. Originally these were a part of a maternity kit given to women to absorb postpartum blood, but women realised that they could be used for menstruation as well and encouraged the company to sell them separately. Disposability was a major breakthrough; women could now simply toss the napkin when it was full.

Early 1900s: Belts and Better Absorption

In the early 20th century, the bloodiness of World War I had an unintended consequence. Nurses in France noticed that the cellulose they used for bandages absorbed blood much better than cotton and began to use it for their menstrual blood. Kotex caught on and acquired leftover cellulose to introduce a new, highly-absorbent disposable sanitary napkin. These napkins were not self-adhesive (you had to attach the pad to a sanitary belt with hooks or safety pins). Being able to throw away a product freed up a huge amount of time and labour for women. To help women get over the perceived embarrassment of shopping for feminine hygiene products, Kotex encouraged shop owners to leave menstrual products on the counter along with a box in which women could deposit their money.

1930s: The Modern Tampon

In 1929 Dr Earle Haas created the tampon. Businesswoman Gertrude Tenderich acquired the patent and formed the company “Tampax” in 1936. Tampons allowed a woman to do all kinds of physical activities; the early adopters were dancers and swimmers. As clothing became more and more streamlined, the “tell-tale outlines” of sanitary napkins were visible, hence making tampons quite a big deal.

1950s: The Virginity Question

While tampons had been available since the 30s, many women still used sanitary pads. These pads were considered more appropriate for unmarried women. There was a notion that the tampon would break the girl’s hymen and sully her before she had heterosexual intercourse. This was unacceptable at a time when virginity was valued above so many things. Hence, there were several innovations around tampons in this decade. The brand Pursettes released a pre-lubed tampon, which was theoretically easier to insert, making them better for inexperienced women.

1960s and 1970s: Self-Adhesive Pads

In 1969, Stayfree created the first maxi pad with an adhesive strip. Now, only the pad was required, not the complicated contraption to keep it secured. Tampons also became popular; by 1980, about 70 percent of women were using tampons.

1980s: Good and Bad Innovation

Once tampons became the preferred way to deal with menstrual blood, companies began to get a little too creative. Playtex made a deodorant tampon that promised to catch the odour inside of you, which didn’t make sense as internal blood is odourless. In 1980, Rely released a super-absorbent tampon made of polyester. However these tampons were linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome and were recalled. As women began to embrace menstrual products, the greater culture still wanted to pretend women didn’t bleed. It took until 1985 for someone to say the word “period” on TV! Euphemisms and blue liquid still continue in advertising today but modern brands now embrace a no-shame approach to promoting their products.

The 21st Century

A product that gained widespread popularity in this century, is the menstrual cup. Leona Chalmers patented the menstrual cup way back in the 1930s. However, her cups didn’t catch on because the rubber was too hard.

In the beginning of the 21st century, a new material-medical grade silicone was integrated into the design of many menstrual cup brands. Now women with latex allergies can safely use menstrual cups too!

Society has come a long way, but it still has far to go before we can create a completely positive and inclusive atmosphere for open conversations about menstruation.


Written by: Niyati Arun

Graphics by: Shreya Krishnamurthy

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