Have you ever taken the time to appreciate the luxury of the tampon, menstrual cup, or sanitary pad? For as long as humans have been around, so have periods—what in the world did cavewomen use on their periods?
Methods of period management and stigmas surrounding the menstrual cycle have gone through many transformations throughout history. Despite our advances in women’s health and feminism, equal menstrual management and education remain an enduring challenge. Let's explore how society has viewed and managed women's periods throughout history.
Ancient Perspectives on Menstruation
The earliest records of women having periods took place in the Stone Age (30,000 BCE to 3,000 BCE). After 3000 BCE, the Ancient civilizations of Egypt and Rome actually celebrated the menstrual cycle, viewing it as a blessing from the gods. This culture saw women to be at their spiritual height during their time of month.
Ancient Egyptians made tampons from rolled cotton or softened papyrus, believing menstrual blood held medicinal properties. Greeks fashioned tampons using wood and lint. Romans utilized wool-based pads and tampons.
Navigating Menstruation in Medieval England
Things took a turn in England's Medieval times (500-1400 CE), which were marked by religious stigmas surrounding menstruation. For example, the Church denied women Holy Communion during their period. They even went as far as to say that women were not allowed to have sex during this time. Some believed that there was corrosive power within menstrual blood, causing damage to the penis upon contact.
Women resorted to scented herbal pouches filled with nutmeg and nosegays to conceal menstrual odors. They turned to unconventional remedies for heavy flows or cramps–like carrying the remains of a cremated toad at their waist.
Factors like poor diet affected menstrual frequency, often leading to amenorrhea (absence of periods). Menstrual collection methods involved moss, rags, and wool wrapped around wooden sticks. To prevent staining, some women exclusively wore red during their period.
Innovations and Transformations: The 1800s to the Late 1900s
At this point, many women were free-bleeding in their clothes—and wearing those same clothes for the duration of their period. Concerns for hygiene and infection were on the rise, which called for innovation.
Thus, the Hoosier sanitary belt was invented in 1879—a belt with an attached washable pad. In 1896, Johnson & Johnson marketed their version, called Lister’s Towel: Sanitary Towels for Ladies.
The 1920s brought the first commercially-marketed modern tampon. The “fax tampon” had no applicator—or string…yikes. In 1929, Dr. Earl Haas invented and patented the tampon with an applicator, known as “Tampax.”
The 1937 invention of the latex menstrual cup started gaining traction, but the material became scarce during World War II, so factories shut down. Fortunately, we’ve all been able to witness their comeback.
In the 1970s, the beltless feminine napkins revolutionized period management. Similar to what we have today, these pads featured an adhesive strip that stuck to underwear. Many women turned to these pads for fear of toxic shock syndrome associated with tampons.
The Menstrual Period in Today’s World
When it comes to managing periods, we’ve come a long way. Huge shout out to science and feminism for helping us get to an era where women have countless options for period management—in a society that doesn’t relate menstruation to divine curses or impurity (for the most part).
While period care has become much more convenient and accessible, there is still a huge need in our society for affordable menstrual products and accessible menstrual health education. Thankfully, there are organizations like PERIOD. that are fighting against period poverty. According to PERIOD.’s recent statistics:
- Nearly 1 in 4 students have struggled to afford period products in the United States.
- 44% of teens report stress and embarrassment due to a lack of access to period products.
- 92% of teens agree periods should be recognized as an indicator of good health rather than as something dirty or gross—a 7-point increase from 2021.
- 78% of teens agree education around menstrual health should be part of the core curriculum, just like math.
- 64% of women were unable to afford needed menstrual hygiene supplies during the previous year. Approximately 21% of women experienced this monthly.
PERIOD. distributes millions of period products annually to communities in need. They also help fight the stigma surrounding menstrual health education.
While society has made many advances in period management, it's important to remember that we still have a long way to go towards breaking stigmas, prioritizing equality, and making sure every woman has access to what they need.