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A Period Through Time

by Montanna Macdonald

Warning: We are about to discuss the topic of women’s monthly business. MENSTRUATION. 

Have you ever wondered while you struggle with a pad wedgie, trying to find the string, or trying to conceal the string while you swim, have periods always been this bloody hard? 

The design of sanitary period items are made to conceal, because, as we have learnt from women before us, we want to cover up that we have our period discreetly, we don’t want everyone knowing our uterine wall is shedding 

 

“Oh, hello Montanna, how are you?” 

 

“I’m just wonderful, James, you?” 

 

“Oh well I’m just jolly, but I can see your period is quite heavy today, you’ve left a trail behind you on the floor, have you thought about seeing your GP about your flow?”

 

“Yes James, my insides are shedding and falling out, preparing me for reproduction, thanks for the observation, I would very much like to see you slip in it now.” 

 

Although it would be quite refreshing to see James slip over, the thought of having my period on show makes my eye twitch. The most horrifying and embarrassing stories have sprung a leak between women folk- most of us know one. 

This brings on some questions to ponder, is it ok for social structures and culture to want women to conceal a natural part of life? Is this a learnt behaviour, a survival method? Or if we could rewrite history, would this be different today?

Without drifting too far into the psychological constructs of periods, have women have always had to put up with annoying period tools?

The toolbox we use now wrapped in plastic and cotton has not always been like this. Let’s break down the most critical periods of time, period. 

Firstly, either women bled freely all over their clothes in ancient times, had so many babies they barely had a period or men who have written history have refused recording menstruation. Over 4,000 years of historical recordings, even from Rome barely mention how women dealt with periods. There was a taboo about menstruation being “unholy” “unclean” and a “curse”, where Jewish Orhtodox women had to be separated from society under the laws of Niddah for fear of contaminating men or objects.

Some of the earliest recordings of women’s menstruation hygiene tools date back to Ancient Greece in the 10th Century when a woman was said to have thrown a menstrual rag at a man to be-rid of him. If I threw a used pad at a bloke today, I would probably get the same reaction. Not much has changed. Body fluids being thrown at a person is pretty gross?

We need to take a moment to appreciate the very mystical? beliefs of women’s periods in Ancient Egypt and Greece. In Egypt, it was considered sorcery and was used as a liquid in practised magic, and in Greece, period blood was spread with wine across harvest fields to increase soil fertility. Then it became Voldermort-like the unspoken. 

In Ancient Egypt, women used papyrus that they softened in the sewage-filled Nile river to use as a tampon.

In Greece, they used splinters of wood wrapped with cotton lint, and in Rome, they used wool. In other parts of the world, moss, paper, animal skin and grass were used. All options sound nasty. Vaginal health – well you can only imagine, no Femme Fresh to be found. 

It wasn’t really until the 20th Century (which baffles me) that women’s sanitary products became a known thing, and even then they were questionable. Most women made home cotton cloths and rags like baby nappies that were pinned onto their underwear or harnessed on with a DIY muslin belt. 

Source: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Overview-of-menstrual-pads

 

So when the first commercially advertised sanitary product came out in America in 1896 by Johnson & Johnson called the Lister Sanitary Towel (a cotton pad) tied to a belt, you would think that women would be excited about this? Well they weren’t, the thought of even going into a store and purchasing a product in front of others with the word “sanitary” on it was not the done thing. 

Source: https://www.maximhy.com/blog/2014/03/05/a-brief-history-of-pads-and-tampons/

From here followed a whirlwind of exciting period inventions with clips, buckles, belts, flaps, slings, fasteners, you name it. It sounds like an erotic novel gone wrong.

In World War I French nurses started using cellulose bandages used on bullet wounds in the war as pads. This inspired the revolutionary Roaring Twenties pad, Kotex. The first disposable pad on the market that had to be worn with a belt, but to avoid ’embarrassment’ of saying menstruation or sanitary to store staff, you could buy your Kotex and discreetly leave your money in a Kotex box on the counter. A  bandage for that monthly wound. 

Source: http://wordsofchoice.blogspot.com/2019/06/resources-comeback-of-period-and-only.html

In 1927 Johnson & Johnson tried again, with this time removing the word sanitary from its pads and calling them “Modess” which became a Kotex rival.

Source: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Overview-of-menstrual-pads 

Dr Earle Haas in 1929 patented the first ‘tampon applicator’ called a catamenial device…he changed this to Tampax. The company was bought off Gertrude Tendrich in 1936 which saw the tampon grow in popularity. 

Source: http://www.mum.org/Tampaxpatent.htm 

One new bulky belt pad with blue liquid and tampons led to another, nothing surprising. 

Now let this sink in, the same year Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, marked the world’s first adhesive-strip pad (Stayfree Mini) without a bloody belt. One big step for mankind, and one big step for women’s health that should’ve already happened? 

Source: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Overview-of-menstrual-pads

Bless us for not having to wear a sanitary belt ever again, with even the options of menstrual cups and menstrual underwear. 

Keeping in mind that tampons, pads and other sanitary items along with their packaging generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year, with 90% of pads being made out of plastic. Furthermore, a year’s worth of disposable period products leaves a carbon footprint of 5.3kgs CO2 equivalent. 

Problems with tampon strings and pad wedgies are nothing compared to the bigger picture. Even though we have transgressed from period magic, putting wood and grass up our vaginas to plastic disposable sanitary items, we have a long way to go. 

I wonder what our period toolbox will look like in another decade?