History Lesson - Sanitary Products Through the Ages

History Lesson - Sanitary Products Through the Ages

Lucky enough for us ladies pads and tampons have changed quite a bit since their first and somewhat primitive incarnations. Those five wonderful days of the month are hard enough without having to think about what ill designed and socially snubbed contraption you’re going to strap to your undergarments to help you function. At Taboo we’ve dusted off our history books and taken a somewhat harrowing look back at the sanitary products, or lack thereof, that the women of yesteryear had at their disposal.

The earliest use of tampons has been thought to date all the way back to ancient Egypt when women are thought to have used soft papyrus. Likewise Roman women used wool tampons in the fifteenth century B.C. Japanese women also fashioned early tampons out of paper, which was held in place by a bandage and changed up to 12 times a day. Who has time for that nonsense!

Materials such as cloth, animal skins, grasses and sponges were also used by our ancient ancestors as pads, with these types of materials still being used by women in less industrialized countries to this day. You can imagine that not only are these types of materials less than sanitary but also ineffective at capturing a heavy flow.

So when did sanitary products as we know them today first come into being? Unfortunately, not until quite some time later. The first commercial and disposable pads appeared in America in 1896 and were created by health care company Johnson and Johnson. Lister’s Towels, as they were called, were made of cotton pad in a muslin casing, not too different from the materials used today, but think surfboard size. The pads were held in place by an elasticated belt that was fitted around the waist and through the wearer’s legs. However these early pads did not sell well due to the sensitive moralities of turn of the century America and the TABOO mentality that surrounded menstruation at the time. For these reasons Lister’s Towels were eventually pulled from the shelves.

The 1920’s saw the launch of another range of pads called Kotex by pharmaceutical company Kimberly Clarke in order to find a use of leftover cellucotton initially meant for use in World War One bandages. Like Lister’s Towels before them, Kotex pads initially suffered from poor sales due to the prudish nature of the women who were too embarrassed to ask for them at the drug store, even though the name Kotex was allegedly invented so that women wouldn’t have to ask for sanitary pads at all.

Fast-forward to 1971 and the first wave of feminism. Women demanded their place in the work force and equal rights. With women playing a larger role in the community and at work, traditional and bulky pads just couldn’t keep up with the busy and active lifestyle of the now liberated 1970’s career woman. Johnson and Johnson introduced both the Mini and Maxi pad, which were some of the first sanitary products that didn’t need the bulky and cumbersome belt to affix them to the wearer’s underwear. These pads featured the genius design of an adhesive strip on the underside of the product that still remains on pads today. These pads were also smaller in size but still offered the same absorbent qualities of their surfboard like predecessors. Finally!

But what about our good friend the tampon I hear you ask? Dr. Earle Haas first trademarked the term Tampax in 1933. And yes, the word tampax is said to have been invented so women didn’t actually have to ask for tampons at the chemist *BLUSHES* *FAINTS*. This would’ve been around the time that tampons started to look somewhat similar to the little cotton wonders that we use today, except the 1930’s versions always had an applicator that the tampon sat inside of.  A woman called Gertrude Schulte Tenderich bought the company from Dr. Haas and promptly hired a team of women to help her manufacture and sell the items. She also enlisted the help of nurses to inform women of the benefits of tampons. Throughout the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s numerous studies were conducted on the effects of the use of tampons on women’s bodies, with results finding that when used correctly tampons had no negative effects on the mind or body.

Today women have a myriad of choices when it comes to what they use when surfing the crimson wave. Whether it be pads, tampons, period proof underwear or a menstrual cup, the freedom to choose what’s right for us and our bodies, without shame, feels pretty darn good.


Words by Alicia Franceschini

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