You know the drill. Month in, month out you bleed, reach for a tampon or pad and job done. Apart from the odd leakage situ, it’s mostly hassle-free. But have you ever wondered how the women of yester-year managed with a monthly bleed, when neat and easy sanitary protection was just the stuff of dreams? Swot up on this brief timeline of tampon and sani-pads and let’s count ourselves lucky ladies.
Way, way back
The earliest knowledge of something resembling a tampon harks back to around 1500BC. Translations of Ancient Egyptian medical documents indicate soft papyrus was used by women for menstrual bleeding. Papyrus was a thick paper made from the papyrus plant that was used at the time for writing and making baskets, bags and sandals. Imagine that.
Now this will make you wince. According to writings by Hippocrates, Greek women in 500BC would fashion tampons from lint wrapped around pieces of wood. Just. Ouch.
Traditional Hawaiian women used the furry part of a native fern called hapu’u to control their flow. Women in Ancient Japan would plug their bleeding with paper (and change it 12 times a day, sigh) and in Africa and Asia, grasses, mosses and other plants were used. In some parts of the undeveloped world, plant life is still a regular go-to for controlling the flow of menstrual blood. We’ve got it easy, right?
On the rag
For hundreds and hundreds of years in the Western world, women on their periods would resort using cotton rags inside their underwear. The invention of the safety pin in 1870, helped a little and homemade strips of fabric (cut from curtains, tablecloths and old clothes) would be pinned in place with ties around the waist and then dumped in a bucket of water for washing and reusing. In 1880, The British Medical Journal wrote about the first patented sanitary towel that was “impregnated in boracic acid” and “simply burned” after use. Advertisements for the towels, priced at “3 shillings for a dozen” were discretely hidden in the back of posh women’s magazines.
During the First World War in 1914, quick-thinking nurses found that stuffing their knickers with the disposable cellulose bandages supplied for bleeding soldiers, worked a treat at soaking up period blood. The company that made the bandages saw they were onto something and re-modelled themselves as a sanitary protection company called Kotex.
The tampon as we know it
From 1929, an inventive American GP called Earle Cleveland Haas spent several years working on his creation of the first recognised product for absorbing period blood. He’d watched his wife struggle with bulky pads and homemade variations of the tampon and in the early 1930s applied for the patent of a compressed cotton product with paper applicator. Dr Haas went on to sell his patent for $32,000 to businesswoman Gertrude Tendrich. She bought a machine capable of making 1000 tampons a day and started a company named Tampax.
Going mass market
In 1936, the first advertisement for the Tampax tampon appeared in a Sunday supplement called American Weekly. In 1939, a subsidiary was launched in the UK and with four compressors and two adapted cigar-wrapping machines and the factory went into production. There was uproar from devout Christians and Catholics, concerned that tampons would rob women of their virginity (yes, really), but their complaints fell on deaf ears. In the Second World War, the popularity of tampons rocketed as women took on the jobs of men and realised tampons were the practical option when on their periods.
Tampon marketing remained tame through the 1940s and 1950s despite new innovations such as the O.B – the first non-applicator tampon – but the 1960s and early 1970s brought a new wave of braver advertisements showing glam women seemingly enjoying their periods. Tampax even marketed their Pursette tampons as “the tampon right for single girls”….whatever that means.
Realising its success, the major players in feminine hygiene were all competing to create the latest designs of tampon and in 1975 Procter & Gamble began test-marketing a super-absorbent teabag shaped tampon that was designed to expand both ways and had a new ingredient – carboxymethylcellulose (CMC). The tampon, name Rely, promised to last for an entire period (yikes) and initially got everybody excited.
However, the tampons were potentially lethal. The synthetic materials dried out women’s vaginas and created a breeding ground for the toxin-producing bacteria staphylococcus aureus. 890 cases of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) were reported in 1980 with 91% of them related to menstruation. 38 women died of TSS. Rely tampons were recalled and all tampon manufactures faced lawsuits.
Tampons went to space in 1983. NASA engineers asked the first American woman in space, Astronaut Sally Ride, whether 100 tampons would be the appropriate amount for her weeklong journey on the space shuttle Challenger.
The surge in cases of TSS prompted a heavy regulation of tampons. Manufacturers were eventually ordered to label the absorbency abilities of tampons, as we know today, and provide information on the potential risks of TSS.
The tampon of tomorrow
As tampon makers continue to develop and adapt our handy go-to, critics and anti-tampon activists are demanding even more transparency about the chemicals that go into our tampons and the processes used for making them. Applications for new patents have included tampons with saturation indicators, vibrating tampons and reusable applicators.
With huge volumes of tampons and sanitary pads disposed of every day in the UK, the question is, what the hell happens to it all? A current option is to just dump in landfill (which then take years and years to decompose), but new initiates look at converting the waste into dry burnable bundles that can then be used to fuel power stations. Rule number one though to help save the planet? Never flush tampons or pads down the toilet. They block drains and litter rivers and beaches.
In 2015, women protested against the UK's “Tampon Tax” by free-bleeding in front of Parliament and in this decade, campaigns to smash taboos surrounding periods and sanitary protection have gone viral and kickstarted change – opening up conversations about women’s periods all over the world.
But there’s still plenty more work to be done….
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