What Did People Do Before Pads and Tampons?

Menstrual cycles have been around throughout the ages. They haven't, however, always been something people could talk about. Centuries ago, this monthly situation was considered a taboo that people couldn't speak of. In fact, that really hasn't changed until recently. Today, we have plenty of possibilities when that time of the month rolls around, but what did people do before pads and tampons were readily available at their local convenience and grocery stores? Well, they got creative. Thankfully, technological innovation and better products have lead to the greater comfort that menstruators experience today, but there was a time when things were, shall we say, a little awkward and uncomfortable. With this in mind, let's take a stroll back through history to learn what people did before they had pads and tampons available at a whim.

Early Materials Used

In ancient times, Egyptian women and other menstruators used papyrus to replicate what's now known as tampons. Greek and Roman people were said to have tied lint around wood to create their own versions of tampons, while ancient Japanese menstruators relied on paper to absorb the blood from their monthly cycles. Native American people made pads from moss and buffalo skin. In other words, the early days of period products were very organic.

In more recent times—a couple of centuries ago—menstrual pads were made from flannel or woven cloths. Because people generations ago had more children, they didn't have as many periods. Besides spending more of their lifetimes pregnant, they also generally started menstruating later in life because health and nutrition weren't at today's levels. This meant there was less general concern over how to handle monthly periods. Some people simply opted to let the blood bleed into their clothes, while others made their own menstrual pads or bought washable pads to absorb the blood.

The first disposable menstrual napkin was introduced in 1896. Lister's Towels touts itself as the first disposable sanitary napkin for sale. The fact that they were disposable was a massive breakthrough in the period care industry. All of a sudden, menstruators could simply toss out used napkins when they were full. This was also a time in which rubber diaper-like covers were tested so people could have access to sanitary bloomers.

Where Did the First Pads Come From?

Nurses in France are rumored to have created the first pads. They were made from wood pulp bandages, which were very absorbent and cheap enough to throw away afterward. Johnson & Johnson—the company that owned Lister's Towels—actually borrowed the idea for its disposable pads from the French nurses. They recognized a need for hygienic ways for menstruators to deal with their cycles.

Unfortunately, the taboo of this monthly situation was a real thing, and many women and other people who menstruate were too embarrassed to ask for the products from their local pharmacies. As a result, people continued using DIY methods for many years.

World War I's Impact on Menstrual Health

During the First World War, nurses became familiar with a product known as cellulose; it was far more absorbant than cloth bandages and significantly more effective at trapping the blood. Kotex paid attention to nurses' claims and created the first cellulose sanitary napkin in 1918. By 1921, Kotex had successfully become the first company to mass-market sanitary napkins. 

Menstrual Cups and Tampons Enter the Picture

Menstrual cups have been around a lot longer than you might think. The first patents (a whopping 20!) were submitted between 1854 and 1915. Unlike the soft, pliable silicone available today, the early models often used aluminum or hard rubber. This is around the same time that rubber pants (underwear lined with rubber) hit the scene, too.

It wasn't until the late 1920s or early 1930s that tampons became a mainstream option. History indicates that Dr. Earle Haas created the tampon in 1929; Kotex reportedly passed up on the offer, but a businesswoman acquired the patent and ran with it, forming Tampax in 1936. Unfortunately, many people shied away from tampons when they were first introduced—many for fear of losing their virginity if they were unmarried.

Belts Become the Go-To Sanitary Method

Given the taboo around tampons, many people (especially those unwed) opted to utilize alternatives. In 1956, African-American inventor Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner patented the sanitary belt. Belts appeared before self-adhesive pads, offering a way for menstruators to keep their sanitary napkins in place by securing them to belts they wore underneath their clothing.

The Impact of 1970s Feminism on Menstrual Health Products

When the 1970s arrived, the feminist movement took hold of the country. Some people opted for free bleeding—a movement that let menstruators feel more comfortable with their bodies and less ashamed of their periods. Bear in mind; this was hardly a mainstream approach to menstruation.

The '70s also brought on a surge of reusable menstrual cups, period sponges, and biodegradable options. Manufacturers began producing mini-pads, which were smaller and more comfortable than their predecessors. During this time, another unique method of menstrual health emerged—the "extraction method.” Using this option, people would use a device to suction the contents of the uterus, shortening periods from around five days to just a few minutes. The procedure required a doctor, making it generally more expensive than other methods, and there was a lack of medical data surrounding the potential long-term effects.

The Word "Period" Appears on TV

Welcome to the 1980s. It wasn't until 1985 when the mystery surrounding periods was lifted. In 1985, the word "period" first appeared on TV when Courtney Cox said it in a Tampax commercial. Thanks to her, the shame surrounding an utterly natural body process was lifted, and today's TV ads feature factual information that doesn't skirt the issue at hand.

Today's Options

Today's options are far-reaching. Some people even choose to skip their periods, opting for IUDs or other forms of birth control that have been known to stop or slow the flow of menstrual blood. Super-absorbent period underwear has also become a mainstream thing in the past couple of years, ensuring no more ruined underwear on those high-flow days. Of course, menstrual cups, tampons, and pads have come a long way in their own rights, offering better materials, more absorption, and optimal comfort for menstruators everywhere.