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What existed before tampons and pads?

A brief look into the curious history of menstrual hygiene products.

By Jasper Mylius

14 February 2020

4  minute read

It’s 45BC, and while ruling over her kingdom, Cleopatra has her period.

While having unlimited access to the highest-class menstrual hygiene products available, a softened papyrus plant offers the best solution.

Cleopatra literally used plant leaves to subdue her flow… Oh how far we’ve come.

And this fact begs the question, what other methods were adopted to tackle periods in the pre tampon/pad era?

With the commercial introduction of sanitary pads in 1896 and the first tampon successfully patented in 1933, the pre tampon/pad era is a substantial chunk of human history to navigate.

So, let’s get started.

The OG Flow Stoppers

With no commercial product available to assist with period management, women throughout history used to rely on homemade remedies. These often took the form of rags (which coined the term “on the rags”), however more creative solutions were used in ancient times…

As mentioned above, the papyrus plant, revolutionary in ancient Egypt for its ability to make paper, baskets, perfumes, clothes or just about anything, was also used as a tampon. Egyptians would soften the papyrus by using River Nile water for added comfort before insertion.

More recently, papyrus has been refined into environmentally friendly menstrual pads which are fully biodegradable, how bloody good is that!

Moving along to the ancient Romans, who found that opium-soaked wool could also be used to reduce menstrual flow, while Chinese women used balls of sand tightly wrapped within cloth. When ready to dispose of the waste, the Chinese would rid the sand and reuse the cloth. Not terribly hygienic, but sustainable and environmentally friendly, nonetheless!

The ancient Greeks take the cake for the most painful product, a piece of wood wrapped in lint.

Ouch.

The validity of this method is widely speculated but I thought it was too shocking to not at least mention.

But my personal favourite lies with the Native Americans.

teepees in the grand canyon

Teepees in Grand Canyon National Park. Photo by MJ Tangonan on Unsplash

They would segregate themselves into tepees with the other women who were also menstruating. Inside they would relax, do some sewing, beading, or weaving while the men, grandmothers and children would do their work for them. Inside the tepees they would bleed into grass mats which would be routinely cleaned and replaced.

This solution is my favourite, purely because menstruating women were treated with respect and dignity, a rare occurrence for most of history.

Modern day taboos are fundamentally grounded on the historical pretence that periods are “unmentionable”.

Tampon ads were banned on TV until 1972, while the word “period” was said on TV for the first time in 1985.

Courtney Cox saying “period” for the first time on TV in 1985.

I want to provide some context to impress just how socially progressive the Native Americans menstruation solution is, so below are some of the archaic menstrual beliefs and practices throughout history:

• Indian culture forbid menstruating women from offering prayers or touching holy books.

• Jewish women were thought to contaminate men with a touch while on their periods, even the objects they handled during bleeding needed to be blessed by a rabbi before again being fit for use. A ritual cleansing takes place at the conclusion of menstruation so the women are allowed to touch items and men again.

• The French believed that any baby conceived during menstruation will be deformed.

• Chinese women were condemned to undergo torture in hell for spilling ‘unclean’ blood onto the earth during menstruation.

Thankfully, as we ride the growing wave of female empowerment, these beliefs and practices are increasingly rare.

Yes, some ancient taboos still exist.

But the substantial progress we’ve made in the last century has transformed the sanitary product market from reused rags to a now multi-billion dollar global industry. Imagine what the next century has in store…

So, what’s the future of tampons and pads?

Well, if U.S Patent Office is a reliable guide, we should be preparing for a saturation indicator, a reusable applicator, and a vibrating tampon.

Or we could ditch hygiene products altogether and go back to the Native American teepees…

If I menstruated, I know which option I’d choose.

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