Today, we take tampons for granted. But they’re actually quite a recent invention—they didn’t get patented until 1931 and disposable pads weren’t invented until much later in the 1970s. So what did women do before using disposable tampons and pads? (I mean, besides crying.)
For the thousands of years that commercial menstrual products were not available, women came up with some pretty crafty ways of dealing with their periods. They used whatever materials they had handy, and sometimes those materials were a little strange (okay, really strange). Some of these “feminine hygiene” methods don’t seem very hygienic, but maybe that’s why their life span was so much shorter than it is today. Some of these entries are speculations about what materials women most likely used during ancient times; there’s not necessarily a written record of women using these products. But given the materials they had available to them, these were the most likely their only solutions.
And trust me, once you see some of these “solutions,” you’re going to hug your tampon box the next time you see it.
15. Wood (!?)
This was the method that ancient Greek women used. And boy oh boy do we have to give some major points to the Greeks for being so strong. The wood didn’t actually absorb the blood, but it did give shape to the primitive tampons that women made. They would take small pieces of wood and wrap lint around them to create a small, absorbent object that they could insert into their bodies. Given the materials available at the time, this trick is pretty clever TBH. You would just have to be very careful that you wrapped the lint nice and tight so it didn’t unwind after you inserted it. If it did, you could probably end up with a splinter in a place you really did not want one. And good luck trying to get that out.
14. Woven Cotton…
While the Greek women were using wood and lint, the Roman women were using woven cotton (as far as historians think). The Romans certainly had the technology to weave cotton, so women could have easily made raw cotton into modern day tampons or pads that they pinned to their undergarments. There is more evidence that Roman women used cotton pads, but that’s not to say tampons wouldn’t have been possible. Truthfully, the Roman’s used solid common sense considering cotton is an incredibly absorbent material. In fact, this method of period protection would reemerge later in America in the 1900s. American women would buy the same cotton that was used to make baby diapers and pin that to their underwear. Alternatively, women would make their own muslin belts and pin the cotton to those as well. We’ll talk more about modern period products later (thank God).
13. Sheep’s Wool
Another theory about how ancient Roman women handled their periods is that they made pads or tampons out of sheep’s wool. Wool generally isn’t as absorbent as cotton, but it would have gotten the job done. (Honestly, anything sounds better than wood.) Given that wool often acquires an unpleasant odor when it gets wet, this is one primitive menstrual product that comes off as a little bit…gross. Wool is also thick and a tad heavy, so you’d think that wearing a pad made out of wool would make you pretty sweaty down there. Then again, people weren’t really concerned about bathing and smelling nice back in ancient times. If you were farming wool, you probably already smelled like sheep all the time anyway, so what difference did it make?
12. Papyrus fibers
Now, let’s talk about the ancient Egyptians. Most people think ancient Egyptian women made tampons out of papyrus fibers. You may have already learned that the Egyptians were the first people (that we know of) to use Papyrus. And they used it to make a ton of things: paper, rope, baskets, mats, sandals, and even boats. So why not make tampons with it too? Papyrus really isn’t that absorbent, so it’s unclear how effective papyrus tampons would have been. I mean, do you really want to be making boats out of the same material that you use to make tampons? Either your boat is going to soak up all the water, or you have to change those tampons very very regularly. This just sounds like a period disaster waiting to happen.
What other use could hay possibly have, besides feeding horses?
In some cultures, it is customary for women to go into menstruating huts when they have their periods. These huts would be filled with hay, and the women would just sit on the hay and bleed on it. Sounds awfully uncomfortable, right? It also makes me wonder how long they had to sit in that hut! Women were relegated to these hay-filled period huts because they are believed to be unclean while they are menstruating, and anything they bled on was also considered unclean. Jewish families used to enforce this rule in Biblical times, and there are a handful of cultures that still enforce this absurd rule today. I think it’s safe to say, this way of dealing with a woman period would never fly in North America.
10. Grass Mats
In some places, women are segregated during their periods because they are believed to be unclean. But in others, women segregate themselves during their menstrual cycle to take a few days off and have some girl time. This is the case with many Native American tribes. When women start to menstruate, they go into teepees or “moon lodges” where they sit on grass mats that will absorb their blood. While in the lodges, they get to relax, do some sewing, beading, or weaving, and chat with the other women who are also menstruating. During this time, the women’s chores are done by grandmothers, young girls, and men. Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? You get one guaranteed week off from work every month just for being a woman. And everyone in your family says, “Don’t worry dear, we’ll take care of that. You relax.”
A relative of grass, moss, also used to be a relatively common menstrual product. Sphagnum moss, or peat moss, was the moss of choice, because peat moss holds a lot of water, even after it dies. Women would stuff the moss into small cloth sacks and put them in their underwear to absorb their natural fluids. I have to say, this is a petty clever idea, but in practice, it’s hard to see how you could do it in a sanitary way. Where there’s moss, there’s always dirt, and it would be difficult to separate all the moss from the dirt because you actually, well, you know. And on top that, you never know what kind of natural bacterial is living on moss or insects/bugs are attracted to moss. I don’t know, I think I would stick with cotton or chilling in a hut with my girlfriends instead of shoving moss in my undies.
Chinese women used to make comfortable period pads out of cloth and sand. They would take small pieces of cloth and wrap them tightly around packed sand. When the sand had absorbed all the blood, they would unwrap the pad, discard the sand,and reuse the cloth. This method was also done with dried grass instead of sand, depending on where the women lived and what materials were available in their immediate environment. It’s hard to see how you could use this technique without getting sand everywhere, but sand is easier to clean up than blood. If you wanted to prevent your clothes from staining, this was a pretty good solution. At least it sounds like a pretty good solution. I don’t think I would try this method out at the beach, but hey, do what you gotta do ladies.
7. Animal pelts
Given that our modern western society treats fur as a luxury item, it’s difficult to believe that women used to actually bleed all over animal furs. But apparently, some did. This may have been the case for women in colder climates who didn’t have materials like cotton, papyrus or moss available. People used to try not to waste any part of the animals they killed, so if someone had a leftover animal pelt that they weren’t using, why not take it and use it for your period? As with the wool, you have wonder whether these primitive pads would have smelled really bad. But perhaps people just weren’t as concerned with B.O. back then and wouldn’t have minded if your animal fur pad smelled like a rotting corpse.
6. All Natural
Yup, that’s right. Some women just didn’t bother with covering their menses. In the 1800s, women living in rural areas in Europe often didn’t use any kind of menstrual protection. They would just bleed on their clothes or even drip blood along the floor as they went about their days. In this era, menstrual protection was somewhat of a luxury. Lower class women on farms couldn’t really afford extra materials to make sanitary pads. But they probably had little concern for their stains on their clothes, as long as no one of a higher class was around to judge them for wearing soiled garments – bleeding on their own clothes or on the ground was considered normal.
We live in an age where openly talking about a woman’s period is getting easier, which is fantastic. It’s natural and a huge part about being a woman; there is nothing to be ashamed of. However, thinking about your own blood falling wherever it pleases freaks me out a but.
5. Old Rags
Have you ever wondered where the phrase “on the rag” comes from? Your grandmother may be able to remember a time when most women used absorbent rags during their periods. They would simply fold the rags and place them inside their underwear. The bloody rags would be washed with bleach and used over and over again. This method has been somewhat revived today, with the invention of reusable menstrual pads that can be washed in the washing machine. Reusable pads come in many sizes and absorbencies, and they are much better for the environment than disposable pads. So in a way, former uses are making a comeback. Would these rags do well today? Eh, probably not, but if we were in a tough situation – yea, we’re grabbing a rag.
4. This Horrifying Contraption
Believe it or not, this is actually a type of menstrual cup. It was invented by a man (obviously) in 1867, but never made it to market. And it’s not hard to see why.
Even though women would never actually ware this thing, I had to include it because it’s just so outrageous. It really looks more like a torture device than a period protection product. Given that modern menstrual cups easily stay put inside your body, it’s not clear why the person who invented this thing thought it was necessary to hold the cup in place with a metal wire (yes, metal wire). It’s possible that he took inspiration from medical devices that existed at that time, which were designed to hold the uterus in place after a woman suffered a prolapse. But most women need no assistance keeping their uterus in place. The inventor of this thing apparently didn’t think that this device would be in any way uncomfortable. Leave it to a man to create prototypes for a woman, right?
3. Sanitary Belts
In the late 1800s, sanitary belts became popular and stayed popular until the 1970s. They were made out of elastic and cotton. In fact, they look like thongs that have huge cotton pads on the bottom. But let’s call them for what they were—diapers. The cotton pads on these devices were disposable and had to be clipped or pinned to the elastic belt, which you kept and used every time you had your period. In a way, these devices were pre-curses to modern disposable pads. It wasn’t until the 1970s that someone finally figured out how to make a pad that stuck to your underwear, at which time these belts became obsolete. And thank God for that. But seriously, how did it take until the 1970s to figure that out?
In World War I, French nurses discovered that the cellulose bandages they were using to treat wounded soldiers were remarkably effective at absorbing menstrual flow. The nurses would roll the bandages up and put them in their underwear to absorb the blood. It’s not clear how they figured this out, but I’m sure some BAMF nurse took it upon herself for some trial and error. When someone began their period and they weren’t prepared for the mess, this nurse probably began passing around bandages to help with the absorption. What a gal. Kind of like when you were in eighth grade and you found yourself with your period but didn’t have any tampons on you. Ugh those days were the worse. What’s a girl to do right?
1. Rubber Cups
The reusable menstrual cup was actually invented around the same time that disposable tampons were invented. A woman named Leona Chambers patented the cup, and she didn’t include any wires. Her cup was simply made out of rubber. Unfortunately, by the time tampons were invented, women just weren’t interested in purchasing a new reusable menstrual product. Another inventor came up with a new menstrual cup design in 1959, but women still weren’t interested in buying them.
Today, the menstrual cup has finally found its success, 80 years after it was first invented, that is. More and more women are choosing menstrual cups because they eliminate the constant cost of buying tampons, and they are also better for the environment.