Periods are by no means a modern invention. Women have been finding different ways to handle the messier parts of their monthly cycles for thousands of years. With the introduction of items like period panties and menstrual cups, today’s period products have ushered in a new golden age for women’s health.
But before we had the options of tampons or pads, organic or inorganic, reusable or disposable, we had very little choice at all when it came to how we dealt with our periods.
The history of feminine products is a long, and sometimes strange, story.
Period Products in Ancient Times
Whether because of cultural norms or personal preference, some women don’t want to use period products that are inserted into the vagina. So it might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that a few of the first recorded forms of menstrual products were similar to the tampons we use today.
In Ancient Egypt, papyrus was more than just an earlier version of paper. It was used to make everything from clothing to medicine to furniture. And as far back as 1550 BC, Egyptian women were also fashioning papyrus into soft, absorbent tampons.
Women in Ancient Greece created similar products. They would wrap small pieces of wood with lint or wool. All around the world, women used items like ferns, grass, and paper to absorb their menses.
Some women also used sea sponges as tampons. Sponges have been around for up to 660 million years, making them possibly the oldest form of animal life on our planet.
And we still use sponges as period products today. They are reusable and highly absorbent. They’re also easily farmed, so they offer a renewable and environmentally friendly option for period products.
Period Products in the Middle Ages
If you were on your period in the Middle Ages, you might quite literally have been “on the rag.” Medieval women used scraps of discarded fabric, or rags, to create makeshift pads.
Whether women of this time used cotton or linen is up for debate. Cloth was precious during the Middle Ages, and neither of these fabrics were absorbent enough for practical daily use during a woman’s period
So many Medieval women came up with a clever solution.
Blood moss is commonly found in bogs throughout England. At the time, it was valued for its high absorbency. It was used on wounds after battles to stop injured warriors from bleeding out. Its absorbency and its ready availability made it the perfect material to help women out during their periods.
Half a world away, the women of China were using similar methods. But instead of moss, they filled their rags with sand. Once the sand was saturated, it was thrown out and the cloth was cleaned and kept for future menses.
Period Products in the Late 19th Century
Period products of the late 19th century seem especially awkward. Sanitary aprons used a rubber strip that ran between women’s legs and kept their clothing from getting stained. With something that messy and uncomfortable, it’s no surprise that it phased out of popularity so quickly.
Menstrual belts, on the other hand, were commonly used up until the 1970’s. These belts were worn around a woman’s waist and, in turn, would hold a reusable pad in place.
Period Products in the 20th Century
The transformation of menstrual products during the 20th century was influenced by a lot more than just comfort or women’s health. Advertising, changing social views, and both world wars played a large part in creating the products we are familiar with today.
You can trace the success of modern pads back to World War I. New surgical dressings created to treat the wounded were absorbent and inexpensive. Kotex used these materials to create the first successful disposable pad in 1921.
Tampax tampons appeared on the market about a decade later. Before this, tampons were actually primarily implemented in medical procedures. Doctors would use them to staunch bleeding in deep wounds or soak them in medicines that they believed needed to be introduced vaginally.
As women’s role in society shifted, so too did their products. The sexual revolution revved up during the 1960’s. Women were encouraged to focus more on their own health and comfort. They also became more involved in sports. As a result, menstrual belts were vanquished by adhesive pads and nondescript tampons.
But not everything was sunshine and roses in the advancing field of period products. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, several young women died after using a new product of super-absorbent tampons. Manufacturers stopped producing these items after they became associated with Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). This potentially fatal condition is caused by a bacterial infection, mostly in women using vaginal products.
TTS awareness made women start to question what materials were going into their menstrual products – and their bodies. This, paired with a growing interest in environmental protection, set the stage for 21st century period products.
Period Products in the 21st Century
As technology continues to race forward in the 21st century, humans seem to be taking a step back and reexploring their connections to natural products and their relationship with the earth.
Organic cotton tampons and pads offer safe alternatives to their chemical-laden counterparts. Sea sponge tampons are once again a popular and renewable solution to menstrual bleeding. Period panties and reusable pads are not only comfortable and cost-effective, they also help protect our earth by reducing waste.
Out of all the period products that have gained popularity in the 21st century, menstrual cups are perhaps the most exciting. But they’re actually not as cutting-edge as you might expect.
A woman named Leoma Chalmers actually invented the first menstrual cup in the 1930’s. But before she had the chance to market her product, World War II struck. Chalmers’s menstrual cups were made of rubber, and shortages during the war doomed her venture before it really had the chance to get off the ground.
Nowadays, menstrual cups are usually made of silicon or latex rubber. They’re reusable, easy to clean, and long-lasting. For women who are looking for a way to reduce waste and save money in the long run, they are an excellent option.
Period Products in the Future
While we can only guess what direction period products will go next, there are a few lesser known items out there that are interesting, at the very least. Whether you find them ingenious or a bit whacky is completely up to you.
If you believe that there is nothing that tech can’t make better, check out my.Flow. These tampons use a small monitor you can clip to your underwear to keep an eye on how much your tampon has absorbed.
You then sync this monitor to your phone via Bluetooth. You can even set up customizable notifications to let you know when your tampon is getting too saturated or use the app to record how heavy your flow is during different parts of your period.
Are you tired of buying multiple period products, struggling to protect your garments from leakage on your heavy days, or just a minimalist at heart? Well, have no fear, Tampliners are here!
This product is exactly what its name implies; an all-in-one tampon and pantyliner! They look a bit like a tampon wearing a skirt, some sort of deep-sea squid, or a mostly peeled banana. And to add to their appeal, Tampliners use only organic cotton in their products.
Period sex might not be for everyone. You might avoid it because of cultural taboos. You might shy away from it because you don’t feel up to a tumble in the sheets when your uterus is on the attack. But if you’re skeptical of menstrual sex because of the mess, Flex might be the product for you.
Flex is a disk that you insert so that it rests against your cervix. It acts a lot like a menstrual cup in that it collects your menses. But unlike menstrual cups, it sits high enough in your vagina that it allows you to have intercourse without any of the bloody aftermath.
So if you’ve always wanted to know what all the period sex fuss was about, maybe give Flex a try.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What were periods like in history?
Periods were treated and experienced differently depending on the culture and time period. Because periods were often considered taboo, we don’t have a lot of historical information about how women handled them. What we do know is that many women, especially in the Middle Ages, had far fewer periods than women do today. This is because of a number of factors, including poor diet, frequent pregnancy, and longer periods of breastfeeding.
When were feminine hygiene products invented?
Period products as we know them today started to be developed in the late 19th century. But women have most likely been creating ingenious ways to deal with their periods since communities first started forming. The oldest documentation of feminine hygiene products goes back to Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece.
What did women use for tampons in the old days?
Women have used everything from spare bits of cloth to sea sponges as tampons in ancient times. They were highly resourceful; they would utilize natural resources like moss, grass, and papyrus to help control their menstrual flow.
When was the first sanitary napkin invented?
While reusable pads or fabric fashioned into pads have been used for centuries, disposable sanitary pads similar to what we use today were first created by a company called Southalls in the 1880s. But it wasn’t until Kotex used materials created for World War I gauzes in their disposable pads that sanitary napkins became really popular.
What is the best product for periods?
This is completely a matter of opinion. Disposable pads and tampons are the most widely used products on the market today. But you might find other products are a better fit for you, your lifestyle, and your convictions. Reusable pads and period panties can be comfortable and save you money in the long run. Menstrual cups are economical, reduce waste, and may be safer than traditional tampons. When it comes to choosing the right period product, the choice is completely up to you.