A History of Menstruation

By Tim Lambert

Menstruation in Pre-Industrial Societies

The word menstruation comes from the Latin word for a month, mensis. For millennia women have found ways to deal with the process.

In the Old Testament, a menstruating woman was regarded as ‘unclean’ for a period of 7 days. (Leviticus 15:19-30). The Bible also mentions a menstrual cloth (Isiah 30:22). In the Ancient World menstrual cloths were usualy way of dealing with menstruation.

In the early 5th century AD, a woman named Hypatia lived in Alexandria, Egypt. She was an astronomer and mathematician. According to legend she once put off an unwanted suitor by throwing a menstrual cloth at him.

For centuries women in Europe used menstrual cloths that could be washed and reused.

Menstruation in the Modern Era

At the beginning of the 20th century, tampons were used for medical reasons. They were made by nurses and contained antiseptics. Tampons were used to treat infections rather than for menstruation.

The tampon, with a paperboard applicator, was invented by Dr. Earle Haas in 1929. (Paperboard applicators were later replaced by plastic). He patented his invention in 1931. A woman named Gertrude Tendrich purchased the patent in 1934 and in 1936 the new tampons went on sale using the name Tampax. Tampons became more popular during the Second World War because women worked physically hard in factories while men were away fighting.

Feminine hygiene product

In 1945 a German woman named Dr Judith Esser-Mittag invented a non-applicator tampon. It was called a digital tampon because it was inserted by a finger or digit.

At first advertising tampons had to be very discreet. They were advertised in magazines but on radio or TV. In the USA it was not until 1972 that the National Association of Broadcasters removed a ban on advertising tampons and sanitary pads on radio and TV. It was not until 1985 that the word period was first spoken on American TV in an advert.

During the 19th century, women still used homemade menstrual cloths. However, in the late 19th century pads went on sale, for those who could afford them together with devices to hold them in place. But during the First World War, nurses in France realised bandages made of pulped wood absorbed blood more efficiently than lint ones. They began using cellulose bandages as menstrual pads. In 1918 Kotex began selling disposable pads.

The first menstrual cups were sold in the 1930s but they were not commercially successful. The first successful menstrual cup was a latex rubber one that went on sale in 1987. In Britain, the first silicon menstrual cup was introduced in 2001. Period panties became available in the 1990s. They have become increasingly popular in recent years. Today women have much better ways of managing menstruation than ever before.