The History of Menstruation & Menstrual Hygiene
By Beatrice Dixon
Since the beginning of time, humans with vaginas have been experiencing the highs and lows of menstruation. Additionally, the menstrual cycle has been misunderstood and feared over the centuries.
Many of you may know that much of the history surrounding menstruation (and menstrual hygiene) has been suppressed due to the fact that many scribes were men and is often hard to extrapolate.
Some of the things we do know:
- The word “menstruation” is derived from the Latin menstruus, meaning ‘monthly’ which also resembles the Old English monadblot, which translates to “month blood”. The use of the word period starts to turn up in 1822 and its meaning is sadly quite obvious - just means a repeated cycle of events (which feels like AN ETERNITY!)
- Women likely experienced a much lighter and even inconsistent menstrual cycle - due to malnourishment, life expectancy and lastly, due to the fact that women started menopause as early as 40. Today it is most common for women to begin menopause around 50.
- Menstruating women were associated with magic and sorcery. In later times, this would be translated into “hysteria”. Roman philosopher and naturalist, Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman could stop hail storms and lightning, as well as kill crops. A lasting notion that lasted well into the early 1900s, was that menstrual blood is poisonous and spoils both food and drink. According to the New York Times, many of these taboos still exist, namely in rural India where the widespread belief is that pickles will rot if touched by a menstruating woman.
We know where the word derives from, that the experience around having a period has changed and lastly, that there have been crazy myths surrounding menstruation since the beginning of time... However, the history of feminine hygiene products is still a bit of a mystery, as no one really knows what women used or what they experienced when they had their period in ancient times.
Some historians suggest that the Ancient Egyptians may have used tampons made of softened papyrus, the Ancient Greeks used bits of wood with lint wrapped around them and the Romans used pads (and tampons) made of wool.
The history of menstrual products is actually quite a long one. “Disposable napkins” first hit the market and media, in 1888, but due to ongoing stigmas, many of the advertisements were not published. With limited traction, the disposable napkins were taken off shelves. Thank you, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner. In the heart of the roaring 1920s, disposable pads entered and were held up by a sanitary belt (not as chic as it sounds!) Kotex, created by the personal health brand Kimberly Clark, was the first successful disposable napkin inspired by the cellucotton that nurses used to treat wounds throughout World War I.
Ok, let’s go back in time (again) -
There isn’t much information around women on their periods in medieval times however it is said that many women used cloths or rags hence the evolution of the phrase “on the rag” (which as we know is still used today). Although it was extremely common for women to free bleed through their clothes as not everyone had access to these alternative resources.
Similarly to the many myths surrounding menstruation, religion strained and shamed those with periods. It was super common for girls and women to hide their periods from family, friends and partners. With the ongoing burden of shame, many women would carry around pochettes of various herbs during their cycle to detract from the supposed smell of blood. Much of the rituals around menstruation were how to conceal it and reduce it - a common “cure” was to burn a toad, wear its ashes and the heaviness of your flow would be reduced along with cramps. How does one even get their hands on a toad!?
As time progressed, information did not. In fact much of what is known about menstruation and the shared experience has been illuminated in the last 50 years. During the Victorian era, people finally established that it wasn’t sanitary (or comfortable) for women to bleed through their clothes. This is likely also due the influx of industrialization and slowly into the 1900s women in the workforce. At this point it became apparent that something needed to change and thus the history of menstrual products begins. As mentioned previously, the sanitary belt became the main product used by women from the 1890s to the 1970s featuring a washable pad that attached to a belt around the waist. As the mid 1970s hit, the introduction of self-adhesive pads hit the market and thus the end of the wildly inconvenient sanitary belt. The introduction of these pads, of course leads to products we presently see in store.
You may be wondering about tampons…
They were invented in 1929 by Dr.Earle Haas. Dr. Haas developed a plug of cotton inserted into the vagina using two cardboard tubes, removed by a cord that hung outside the vagina. The idea was given to him by a friend who would place a sponge inside her vagina to absorb menstrual blood.
So where are we now in the history of periods?
Still actively working on reducing the shame of menstruation and ensuring that these conversations are being bridged. Many young girls (who become women!) don’t know some of the most basic scientific principles about their periods and we hope articles like this one cast a more in depth light on the history and shared experiences of humans with vaginas. As it pertains to feminine hygiene products, these are ever-evolving- absorbencies, the inclusion of essential oils ;) and so on but born of the same use cases and needs.