Journey through the Periods – A look at the History of Menstrual Products

The monthly affirmation of female reproductive ability got its name, Periods, in the 1820s.1

Until then, though the taboo surrounding menstruation was strong and very much factually off, it was an inconvenience at best, and a danger at worst. Period products were ‘Natural’ and frugal, like rags (5th -15th Century), soft papyrus, sea sponges, moss, buffalo skin etc. (before the 5th Century).1

In the 1850s, menstruators started shunning rags and using more layers (of cotton or flannel), to absorb the blood, leading to the roll out of the Sanitary Apron – a rubber strip that ran between the legs and prevented the blood from spreading to the dress or seats. It served as a predecessor for Menstrual Belts.1

 

Menstrual Belts

Menstrual belts, essentially, cloth belts onto which absorbent fabric can be pinned, were commercialized and launched as “Lister’s Towels’. The explicit name, coupled with strong taboos at the time, meant that it failed in the market and went out of sale.

 

Modern Sanitary Pad

The credit to the design of the modern disposable sanitary pad goes to the nurses who served in WW1. While seeking out methods to absorb excessive bleeding, they observed that cellulose did a better job of absorption than the traditional cotton.  The earliest disposable pads had a fibrous rectangle covered with an absorbent layer, with ends to fit in the loops of the girdle worn beneath the dress. The drawback of this design was that the hooks were loose and slipped easily, hence leading to leaking.

Sanitary pads were commercialized in 1888, as ‘Southball Pads’. Kotex launched cellulose pads, but they were not self adhesive. Johnson and Johnson later rebranded Lister’s towels as Nupak, earning quite a market for menstrual belts and pads, with discreet packaging, thus making it presentable to the public.2

In 1969, Stayfree launched a first ever self-adhesive pad, which stuck to the saddle of the underwear. The innovation to this model, like introduction of wings, more absorbent materials, scented pads etc. form pads available in the market today.1

 

Tampons

Tampons also were invented in the same time frame, in 1931, by Earl Haas, with greater absorption and applicator, so that it is convenient for use. His inspiration came from a female friend, who used a sponge to absorb her period blood.

Gertrude Tendrich, a business woman, later bought Haas’s patent and launched Tampax, whose commercial became the first to use the word ‘Period’ on television.1

 

Pads and tampons have recently begun to draw flak for the addition to pollution and use of substandard products. Menstrual cups, once shunned, are now back in vogue as the sustainable period product, along with organic pads et al. The low availability and popularity of organic pads make menstrual cups, the most favored alternative for those looking to make ‘the switch’ to sustainable and eco-friendly periods.

 

Menstrual Cup

The first menstrual cup was patented on June 24, 1884, by Hirem Farr. The first design of the cup looks nothing like its present form – it had components that went inside AND outside the body. The component inside collected the blood, while unscrewing the cap on the outside let out all the collected blood.3

In the 1930s, Leona Chalmers, an American Actress, modified the menstrual cup, making it closest in design to its modern version. She patented her design of the cup, made of latex rubber, that fits in the vaginal canal and collects the blood, rather than absorbing it. Her product was patented on the grounds that they “didn’t cause uncomforted or consciousness of presence”.1

Efforts to commercialize the cup weren’t successful, as they were durable and didn’t cause an immediate demand again after purchase. This meant that while most menstruators were skeptical of using it, the ones who did, did not want another one for a long time. This led to innovations like Disposable cups, by Tassette Inc., but these never took off in the market.4

In the 21st century, cups have regained popularity as the environment friendly and sustainable period product. A major innovation was in the form of production of cups made from Medical grade Silicone, to accommodate menstruators with latex allergies.

Period innovation still has periods to go forth. The goal of reducing period poverty is also as important as tackling the problem of non-sustainable period.

Accessibility and affordability to modern period products is important to ensure a positive period to menstruators.

References-

  1. The History of Menstrual Hygiene – com
  2. The History of the Sanitary Pad – femmeinternational.org
  3. We Now Know What the very First Menstrual Cup looks Like – refinery29.com
  4. Short History of Menstrual Cups -lunette.com

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