Feminine Hygiene Products — Stephanie’s Mini-History (Part 2)

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(Continued from Part 1 — The Bloody Reality)



Have you ever seen a menstrual stain on something a woman was wearing?


Or in the chair she just got out of? I haven’t. Not once. That’s kind of amazing. How do women do it?

Because, lets face it: feminine hygiene products are not that great. Leaking can and does occur. I suppose underwear conceals the evidence of most accidents, but I also suspect that women are so deathly afraid of showing a patch of red anywhere near the crotch area that they make pretty darn sure it’s not going to happen.

This takes energy and focus. Energy and focus that might’ve gone elsewhere, like breaking through the glass ceiling, writing opera, or, it would seem, inventing better “feminine hygiene products.”

I find it amazing that people could drive cars, talk on the telephone, treat anthrax, and build skyscrapers before women had the option of going to a drugstore to buy a tampon.


This has not been, however, a failure of “know-how” so much as a moral stance of “no way.” Homemade versions of sanitary napkins and tampons have existed since ancient times. The ability to mass produce them should theoretically have come in tandem with the industrial revolution. But disposable forms of sanitary napkins weren’t widely available until around 1920, and tampons weren’t commonly sold in stores until 1934.

The problem wasn’t a matter of conception; it was getting the public to go with the flow, so to speak.

Sanitary Napkin Holder from Sears Catalog 1908

Sanitary Napkin Holder from Sears Catalog 1908


At the tail end of the 19th Century, disposable sanitary pads could be found in mail order catalogs and were occasionally carried by drugstores.



Various companies tried to market them and failed. Different brands came and went. There were lots of reason the idea didn’t take. One was cost. Women were used to making their own from rags that would be laundered and re-used. The idea of constantly buying something that would be used once and thrown out had not yet taken hold.

Another problem was quality. The pictured ad for “Aristocrat” Sani-Naps ran in a trade magazine for druggists. They boast that their napkins have “no dirty waste or floor sweepings as frequently found in Sanitary Napkins.”

Those napkins must’ve been manufactured by the “Proletariat” brand.



Figuring out a way to mass produce a product to block the flow of menstrual blood seems to have been hindered by a huge mental block.


It took a long time for anyone to design napkins that were soft enough to be comfortable as well as highly absorbent. (Actually, I’m not sure that’s really been achieved yet.) The genius necessary to perfect the tampon took even longer to emerge. If only scientists had worked on developing feminine hygiene products instead of the atom bomb.

Because the subject was considered, shall we say, “indelicate,” stores were hesitant to draw attention to the product. They demurred from putting it out on display, where it might offend the clientele. Female customers would’ve had to ask for it out loud in full view of the public. To make matters worse, the clerk would most likely be male.

Since men and women of the Victorian and Edwardian periods (no pun intended) preferred to keep the subject of menstruation out of sight and out of mind, marketing these products was quite problematic, as evidenced by this controversy reported by the Kay Band company in Printer’s Ink, a trade magazine for the advertising industry.

First, they tried to place their ad directly to consumers in all the New York City daily newspapers. All the newspapers refused to run it for fear that it would offend their readers.



Then Kay Band mailed a booklet to 10,000 households. This booklet described their product and offered free samples. Only three responses came back. One person requested the samples; the other two said the company should be indicted and punished for insulting the general public.

(Props to that one woman who asked for the sample!)


It seems that society just couldn’t tolerate the stark reality of a product that cradled a woman’s vagina and soaked up the blood that came out of it.

(Not to mention something that actually went inside the vagina, but I’ll get to that later.)

Women continued to use home-made cloth napkins. This was of course before washing machines were invented. Is it any wonder that women of the era suffered from “hysteria”?

The homemade napkin, mostly likely made of cotton or linen, would be attached to a belt that went around the hips. Or it might be safety-pinned to a corset. Or the belt might even be held in place using suspenders that went over the shoulders. Here’s a drawing I found from a patent application in 1904. Sporty, isn’t it?

In addition to sanitary napkins and belts, women could buy sanitary aprons (usually made out of rubber) to protect their skirts.


Sanitary belt and rubber sanitary apron for added security from 1912

Sanitary belt and rubber sanitary apron for added security from 1912

Because these methods were somewhat clumsy and could lead to embarrassing accidents, women often just stayed home and spent time in bed while menstruating.

This led to the impression that womenfolk were frail or ill much of time, when they were simply preoccupied with keeping that blood flow a secret. (And perhaps avoiding that big pile of laundry that needed to be done.)

Other interesting strategies for being “on the rag” have involved forgoing the rag altogether. In some cultures, its been perfectly okay for a women to simply go about her day letting blood dribble onto the ground, the floor, underclothes, wherever.


The author of this piece published in The Eclectic Review in 1912 expresses her opinion about this.


Darn those immigrant women for “spreading syphilis” with their menstrual blood!


Tampons have been around since long before anyone ever worried about how to market them.


Through the centuries, women have used plants, grasses, moss and cotton to catch the drips. Archaeologists have found some evidence that tampons were used by women of Ancient Rome and Japan.

Ancient Egyptians are said to have used papyrus soaked in various herbs. Though, I might add, it is not known for sure if these were used to catch the flow of menstruation or as medical treatments.

In the United States, tampons were used by gynecologists in treatment long before we could buy a box of them at the 5 and 10 cent store.


Medical textbooks from the late 1800’s mention various uses for tampons. One is a treatment for the “medical disorder” of an overly heavy flow: insert a tampon to block the blood from coming out.

Sanitary Bloomers are another form of "protection" that came and went. I think they're kind of cute.

Sanitary Bloomers are another form of “protection” that came and went. I think they’re kind of cute.


Plugging the woman up like this would supposedly help to return a woman’s flow to the “normal” amount.

However, there is no mention in these textbooks suggesting or describing the use of a tampon as a convenient way to absorb a “regular” flow. Contradicting the “treatment” just described, a common view at the time contended that hampering the release of blood from the body was unhealthy. (Or was it the act of a woman’s fingers touching her own vagina that was unhealthy?)

It’s not surprising that disposable sanitary napkins became acceptable before tampons; at least they didn’t require insertion. So how did they finally become a regular staple carried by the stores?

Well, it seems we have the Boll Weevil and World War I to thank. Read on to Part 3 of my history of feminine hygiene products to hear why!