The history of menstrual supplies spans from ancient Greece to modern times, evolving from cloth to menstrual cups.
What are menstrual pads/menstrual supplies?
The “Menstrual Pad” is one of the most widely used methods of menstrual management. Basic menstrual pads are thin sheets of cotton and are used to manage one’s menstruation. While the pads we use today are made up of primarily synthetic, bleached material, it wasn't always like this. Menstrual pads have a long history of how they were invented and what they looked like.
Early age of menstrual supplies
Menstrual supplies have been mentioned in history as early as the 10th century in Ancient Greece. It is said that Hypatia (the first female mathematician) threw a used menstrual cloth at a man to get him to go away from her. This indicates that people in that period most likely used pieces of clothes to soak up menstrual blood.
In addition, according to historians, menstrual supplies were mentioned in Egyptian medical records. In the 5th century B.C. “Hippocrates”- the father of Western medicine - wrote that they used wrapped lint around wood as tampons. Similarly, in ancient Japan, paper was used as a menstrual pad. Before disposable pads were invented, most people who menstruated used cotton, sheep’s wool, rabbit fur, or even grass to handle their periods.
Rags - first disposable menstrual supply
As the first disposable menstrual supply, rags were used in the 1800s. It was the Victorian era when menstrual supplies started to become more available and people used homemade menstrual clothes made out of woven fabric or flannel. This is where the term ‘On the Rag’ came from.
However, people were concerned about the risks of bacterial growth from the overuse of the rag. This led to the invention of the ‘Sanitary Apron’, which we will explore in the next section.
The era of the sanitary apron
At the end of the 19th century, sanitary aprons were introduced. It was made up of an elastic waistband with two clips attached, one at the front and one at the back. Menstrual pads could be attached via clips to the waistband, so that it could pass from front to back, soaking up the menstrual blood.
At the same time, Johnson & Johnson invented the Lister’s towel which was used with elastic waistbands. It was likely the first commercial pad to be sold and it was made of cotton and gauge.
Entering the mainstream of menstrual supplies
The stigma associated with menstruation deterred people from purchasing this necessity, which led to a commercial failure for the Lister’s towels. During the First World War, doctors and nurses noticed that cellulosic material (a substance that exists in the cell walls of plants and is used to make various fabrics and fibers) absorbs blood quite well and could be used as a menstrual pad. This discovery led them to create the Kotex sanitary napkin. By 1921, Kotex was the first successful mass-marketed sanitary napkin. Johnson & Johnson also took the chance and rebranded their Lister’s towel to Nupak.
With some drastic changes, Kotex sanitary napkins helped a lot of people who menstruate during World War II and it encouraged menstruators to use the menstrual supplies to continue their work during their period. This was the beginning of entering the mainstream of menstrual supplies.
After that, tampons and menstrual cups were invented, and modern disposable tampons were patented in 1933 under the name “Tampax". Due to hygiene concerns of the proximity of pads to fecal bacteria, tampons were generally considered a healthier alternative by the medical community.
Dr. Mary Barton, an English physician, wrote a Medical Journal in 1942. She addressed concerns that tampons would be “unbecoming,” and pointed out that tampons did not cause abrasions and boils on the vulva as menstrual pads had for many of her patients. However, many communities were still hesitant to embrace tampons because of the myths and incorrect beliefs surrounding the use of tampons. For example, people incorrectly believed that tampon use was related to virginity, masturbation, and its potential to act as contraception. Dr. Mary Barton was a strong supporter of increased options for menstruators. She stated -
“We surely do not retain our femininity at the cost of the inability to make the menstrual period as comfortable and unobvious a process as possible. I believe that femininity is an attitude of mind which is consistent with knowledge and experience, and should refuse only those ‘improvements’ that encroach upon our receptiveness or frustrate our attempts to promote health and happiness”
Due to the hesitancy about tampons and the misconceptions about them, the menstrual supply innovations continued to bloom.
Modern age: 1950s to 1990s
In 1972, beltless pads were introduced, with variations for heavy flow, light flow, mini pads, etc. Versions of modern maxi pads and pads with wings hit the market in 1980.
On the other hand, tampons increased in popularity. However, as the use of tampons rose, people became concerned about a condition called Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). Between 1979 and 1996, over 5,000 cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) were reported. TSS cases were linked with a few brands that used a toxic material in their tampons, which no longer exist in the market.
2000 to current time
Since the 2000s, menstrual supplies have had many variations, and people have multiple options for managing their period such as period panties, menstrual cups, organic pads, tampons, etc. Despite all the options that are currently available, over 80% of menstruators continue to use tampons, pads, and panty liners.
During this time, people have become aware of the environmental impact of disposable menstrual supplies. As a result, reusable and organic menstrual supplies have risen in popularity. Advances in technology and innovation have also had a massive influence on menstruator health and wellness.
Eco-friendly, reusable, health-conscious menstrual supplies
People are now more conscious of eco-friendly products. Disposable supplies are piling up and are affecting the environment. While traditional disposable supplies remain the preferred choice for many, reusable supplies have gained popularity.
Modern menstrual cups are now made of medical-grade silicone. It collects blood in a bell-shaped vestibule which can be emptied, washed, and re-inserted. It is both economical and eco-friendly. Other sustainable menstrual supplies such as washable period pants, pads, tampons, and more are also available. They all are eco-friendly, reusable, health-conscious, sustainable menstrual supplies.
Menstruation has always been a taboo subject. People were ashamed of talking about their period cycle and did not have access to appropriate, available, and accessible menstrual supplies to manage their menstruation. Technology is advancing day by day in menstrual supplies and it has had significant impacts on menstruator health and personal and professional freedoms.
From the early era to patents to pilots, people are more conscious about their health, and also modern technologies have been opening doors for people with their monthly cycles throughout history.
Original article written by: Mushfika Anjum on March 30th, 2023.
Revised and updated by: Niki Oveisi on October 27th, 2023.