Have you ever wondered about the history behind menstrual products as we know them today? Read on to discover the fascinating story of menstrual products, from the ingenuity of ancient civilizations to modern day innovation.
The history of menstrual products can be traced back over several millennia. Many inventions of the past have been a product of necessity as well as the materials available at the time. In the Western world, today’s options offer more freedom of choice and expression. While it remains true that as menstrual products have evolved over time (or devolved, in many cases), many still share a common goal: to hide or fix the so-called “problem" of menstruation.
Aisle has always been about seeing menstruation as a normal part of having a human body, not something embarrassing to hide. Our products are not only using technically advanced fabrics and techniques, they build on centuries of innovation by menstruating folks worldwide.
Pre-20th century menstrual protection
People have collected menstrual blood using materials such as scraps of fabric and other textile materials, animal fur, natural sponges, and moss for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, small pieces of absorbent wool were wrapped around wooden splints and inserted vaginally. Ancient Egyptians are thought to have used papyrus fibres in a similar fashion — despite the material’s inability to absorb liquid. Some Indigenous populations used grass mats which they would squat over, the naturally absorbent grass would soak up the blood in a lodge made specifically for individuals who were menstruating. In ancient Chinese culture, sand or dried grass was tightly packed and then wrapped in fabric before being used as a pad-like device for protection. Historically and in modern times, the creation and use of menstrual products has been dependent on geographical location, cultural attitudes towards menstruation, and available materials.
The arrival of disposable menstrual products
The very first disposable pads were a product of wartime necessity; nurses working in France began using wood pulp bandages as pads because of the material’s low cost and ability to absorb significantly large amounts of blood. During World War I the Kimberly-Clarke Company, which manufactured bandages, made disposable pads for American soldiers. The pads were attached to a girdle-like device which was meant to hold the pad in place (according to historians, these pads were infamous for slipping around while the person wearing them moved around).
In 1896 the first commercial disposable menstrual pads were introduced to a North American market. Made by Johnson & Johnson, the pads were sold as “Lister’s Towels” or “Sanitary Napkins for Ladies.” Because of tight advertising restrictions which prohibited the pads from being marketed, the product unsurprisingly failed to make a profit and was eventually discontinued.
There were two main roadblocks for individuals wishing to use disposable products: discretion and cost (a major problem that still currently exists). When Kotex first began manufacturing disposable pads in the early 1920’s it was a commercial failure until they were finally advertised in a Montgomery Ward catalog. Nupak, a brand of disposable pads introduced around the same time, had more commercial success due to its discreet packaging and advertising (which targeted “dainty” women). The socially imposed shame attached to disposable menstrual products was so wide-spread in Canada and the United States that in order to purchase the products, a box with a slot for money was placed by the front of the store to avoid a person-to-person transaction with the store clerk.
The first commercially available disposable tampons were introduced in 1931, although as with disposable pads, homemade versions had been used long before their arrival. The package instructions emphasized that the user could still pee while wearing one by illustrating the difference between the urethra and vaginal opening while also providing reassurance that the product would in no way cause the loss of one’s virginity (a misconception that remains popular even today).
Goodbye sanitary belts! Disposable menstrual products in the 60s and beyond
Up until 1969, the year Stayfree debuted the world’s first adhesive pad, pads were kept in position through the use of a sanitary belt (if you’ve ever read Judy Blume’s classic young adult novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” the term will probably be familiar). During the 1980’s, disposable menstrual products became targets of unnecessary innovation — an ultra-absorbent tampon was introduced (and then removed from shelves after being linked to increased cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome) and “odour catching” tampons were introduced but eventually discontinued. Despite the boom in advertising for these products, it wasn’t until 1985 that the word “period” was actually used in a commercial for Tampax — spoken by none other than Courteney Cox, no less.
The rise of reusable menstrual products
Given their growing popularity over the last three decades, it might surprise you to learn that the first reusable menstrual cup was first patented in 1932. Its inventor, an American actress, entrepreneur, and author named Leona Chalmers, also wrote the book “The Intimate Side of a Woman’s Life” — a manual addressing menstruation-related issues, hygiene, physical activity, and vaginal douching (of which she was a strong proponent). Although Chalmer’s product was ultimately discontinued in 1937 because of World War II-era restrictions on rubber, future menstrual cup patents would continue to be made from rubber until 2001, when the first medical-grade silicon model became available.
Reusable cloth pads, which had largely been abandoned for disposable menstrual pads throughout the 20th century, have had a resurgence in popularity since the late 1970s. Beginning in the early 1990’s, the Riot Grrrl movement promoted the DIY-aspect of making homemade cloth pads as a powerful political statement. While this component of reusable menstrual products is still present, the last 10 years have shown a growing focus on period positivity, sustainability, and environmental awareness.
Ashley Linkletter is a mental health, food, and nutrition writer based in Vancouver, BC.