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A Brief History of Feminine Hygiene Products

A Brief History of Feminine Hygiene Products
Carly Jacobs

uite recently I got Mr Smaggle to buy me some tampons while he was at the supermarket. He’s very good at following my instructions so when he couldn’t see my favourite organic cotton tampons, he bought my second favourite which are the Libra ones with the tapered end. I was a little grumpy about it because I really prefer the organic cotton ones and because I’m a spoiled and privileged middle class woman, I felt very annoyed that my vagina had to compromise. I was having a whinge about it to an older lady friend of mine and she told me to get over it because every single feminine hygiene product on the market today is an epic improvement on everything she had when she was my age. I then researched the history of feminine hygiene products because it’s fascinating and I like to take any opportunity to teach myself to be less of a princess so on that note here’s a brief history of pads, tampons, mooncups and sanitary belts.

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The First Reference to the Menstrual Pad

The first mentions of the menstrual pad were seen around the 10th century when Hypatia, a Greek Alexandrian philosopher was said to have hurled one of her used menstrual rags at a gentleman caller when she did not wish to be called upon. During this time women would also make tampons out of lint wrapped around small pieces of wood or use materials like moss, animal skins and grass.

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Early 1700s

Most women in the early 1700s would simply use old rags as pads, similar to what they would use as nappies for their babies and would simply wash and re-use them. This is also thought to be where the very flattering term ‘on your rags’ came from. Women who lived on farms would often use sheepskin as a menstrual aid and would boil it clean with each use. For women who travelled they would make a pile of cheesecloth sacks that they would stuff with flattened cotton – the used cotton would be thrown away and new cotton would be inserted into the re-usable cloth sack.


This was the year that the first commercial sanitary pads went on sale. They were made by Johnson & Johnson and were called ‘Lister’s Towels’. They weren’t well received by the public and failed to sell because women were horrified at the thought of purchasing the towels and thereby declaring to the public that they were menstruating.

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Early 1900s

During this era women were still using rags and cotton, mostly using products designed for babies nappies. They would pin folded fabric with flat cotton padding to their underwear and wash and re-use them. Sanitary aprons and bloomers, made thick fabric were available for women to prevent their clothes from staining. These garments weren’t for absorption, they were to protect their clothing from inevitable leaks.


Curads by Kotex are put on the market when French nurses in the First World War figured out that Curad bandages were much more absorbent than their homemade menstrual rags and started using them as pads. Curads had to be worn with a re-usable sanitary belt and drug store owners used to sell the products by placing a money box next to the Curads display, so women could slip inside the store and discreetly purchase their products without having to ask for them.


The first commercial applicator tampon with a handy cord for removal was invented in 1929 by Dr Earle Haas. He chose the name Tampax as the brand name for this product and by 1936 his product was on the market.


The 1930s saw the invention and production of the first reusable menstrual cup, however after a few years of disposable products many women resisted what felt like a backwards step in the menstrual aid product arena. Reusable products were seen as old-fashioned and it was much more modern to dispose of ones menstrual aids. The ‘mooncup’ would have a resurgence in the 50s but again failed to sell. Various versions of the mooncup will be available from the 70s onwards but will never really gained the same popularity as tampons and pads.

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Tampons were very popular by the 1950s and a company called Pursettes started to make tampons that didn’t have applicators. This was the first time that women’s sanitary products were marketed in fashionable ways with Pursettes being packaged in a black carrying case and marketed to trendy women.


Kotex begins to individually wrap pads for increased hygiene and convenience while travelling.


It was around this time that most companies started selling pads with adhesive backing which put an end to the need for belts, pins and other cumbersome attachment methods. Most companies experimented with different shapes and designs and it was during this ear that ‘winged’ pads were first seen on the market. Cloth menstrual pads also made a comeback during this time and their popularity increased throughout the next few decades as they saved both money and the environment.

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It was in 1978 that Proctor and Gamble created an extra absorbent tampon. It was made from a new material that expanded when it was inserted to create a cup shape. It wasn’t until the early 80s that health professionals realised that this material was contributing to hundreds of cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome which led to several deaths and prompted much stricter product approval methods for women’s hygiene products.


The 1980s saw a shift in advertising for pads and tampons. There was a huge focus on women being ‘active’ during their periods with lots of ads showing women playing sport and running. There was also a bizarre trend of using blue liquid to show the absorption level of products and ads would show a tampon in a cup of blue liquid or the same blue liquid being poured on a sanitary pad.


Aside from occasional developments in new materials, sanitary pads and tampons didn’t change much post 1970 except to get more discreet. In the 90s the focus of menstruation aids was invisibility. Applicator tampons got smaller, pads got thinner and brands started using packaging to hide their products.

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Did any readers out there ever use a sanitary belt? Or any other unusual or old-fashioned feminine hygiene products?


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References and Images

History of Menstrual Products, Sanitary Napkin History, Museam of Menstruation, Post Modern Products – this website is amazing – the design is difficult to read and it’s rather oddly executed but it’s fascinating, Rosalie’s Medievil Women, Scensible Bags, The Curse – A Cultural History of Menstruation, Overview of Menstrual Pads, Gladrags Gab


  1. Christine 9 years ago

    Oh the horror of the sanitary belt, surfboard size pads, plastic gusset knickers. Luckily only had a couple of years of that before my girlfriends at high school educated me about tampons (my mum had a hysterectomy in the early 60s and I assume because she supplied me with said belt and pads, that she had no experience with any other way or didn’t think tampons an appropriate choice for 12 yo). Then along came the adhesive pads and eventually maternity and night time pads – because sometimes you need both. Now, I don’t need anything YAY. Not a subject I’ve ever thought of researching, but really quite interesting. Thanks Carly. X

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 9 years ago

      I was just curious about! I knew that my mum used belts – she has commented below – but I’d also just watched Boardwalk Empire and there was some talk about Lysol as birth control and other stuff like that. I actually really love writing research pieces! I’m such a nerd.

  2. Mama Smaggle 9 years ago

    Yes… sanitary belts and I was 10 years old (in1967)! The primary school did not have incinerators! It was tough! Is it any wonder I drink 🙂

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 9 years ago

      The belts look horrendous, I can’t believe how long women wore them for!

  3. raquelxmossl 9 years ago

    Wow! Didn’t realise my trusty old’ mooncup was so retro! Love that thing — I can honestly say that my mooncup and my IUD have changed my life.

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 9 years ago

      Oh what kind of IUD do you have? And do you have kids? I’m just curious because hormonal contraception has been a disaster for me and I’ve very interested in IUDs but have heard that you have to wait until you have kids.

      • MJ 9 years ago

        Not the above poster, but I have a non-hormonal IUD and no kids. I got it when I was 25, and every doctor I talked to thought it was a great idea. One of them told me that doctors were more pro-IUD now because they’d discovered the risk of uterine infection for women with IUDs had been greatly overestimated. One note: I’m in the US so the general medical culture might be different.

        I’ve had mine for a while and I love it. Hormonal birth control was a nightmare for me, too.

        • Author
          Carly Jacobs 9 years ago

          Oh great! Thanks so much for that – I’ll definitely look into it! Did you get told about any side effects? I guess if it’s non-hormonal then there wouldn’t be any would there? Weight gain is my biggest concern. It’s happen with every birth control I’ve ever used.

          • MJ 9 years ago

            Well, I was coming off of hormonal birth control at the same time, so things were a bit weird and I had side effects from that. For the IUD specifically, I was warned that it could make my periods heavier and crampier (if that’s a word?) and while I do have slightly more cramps, I had such a light period to begin with that heavier didn’t bother me.

            The only warning I’ll give is holy CRAP is the insertion process painful. But the one I have is good for 10 years, so it’s not like you have to do that often.

          • Jen 9 years ago

            I have the implant, and although it’s hormonal it’s not caused me any problems. It’s easy to insert and remove. (You don’t feel anything) and my periods have almost stopped. This comic explains it well.

            Birth control is such a personal thing, but it’s worth exploring different options.

      • Caz 9 years ago

        I have an IUD (copper, non-hormonal) and I LOVE it. I’ve never heard the kids rule before, definitely wasn’t something my doctor mentioned. (I am child-free). It does make my periods heavier and more painful than when on the pill, but they were so light/short before that I assume mine are still in the normal range. I also love not thinking about having to worry about taking bc, or using it correctly and that there are no hormones making me wonky!

        I also just switched to a Diva Cup and OMG I do not know why I was so nervous! I love it. It’s so easy. I didn’t have any leaks, you can’t even feel it. And there’s no squitchy awful feeling of shoving dry cotton up your vag. Plus, playing sports and doing yoga I am much more confident than previously. I’m also excited to not have to keep spending money on all those products every month.

        • Miclee 9 years ago

          I had the copper IUD and absolutely loved it, I had previously had my precious twin boys and returned to my career, I then got incredibly ill all the time, nausea, exhaustion, migraines, stuff I had never experienced before, I was eventually diagnosed as being 6 mnths pregnant after having the IUD for about 10 mnths in total, they removed it immediately for fear of causing infection, advised me that it was to late for abortion but spontaneous miscarriage was a risk, I now have a lovely daughter who has just graduated from Uni. Each to their own, they do have a very small failure rate but why me!!! But I would never have had any more children without this disaster.

  4. Jen 9 years ago

    I’ve had my menstrual cup for years now, and I’m so happy with it! I can sleep with it and I only need to empty it every 12 hours. Not only is it much cheaper than tampons and pads since you can have it for 10 years, but also so much better for the environment and my health.I just bought a new one actually as a I saw a great kickstarter for a new “foldable” one.

    This blogpost is quite useful if you want to start using menstrual cups by the way:

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 9 years ago

      I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about mooncups. That’s it. I’m getting one!

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 9 years ago

      I just backed that project! It looks great!

    • denvergalea 9 years ago

      I’ve always wondered about these! Like the logistics of emptying them in public places (work etc)… now I know it’s only ever 12 hours it’s all making sense.

      • Caz 9 years ago

        If you do need to empty one in a public bathroom you can totally just dump it in the toilet, wipe it out with TP and re-insert. While I have yet to do this, the instructions say its totally legit so you don’t need to worry about washing it out in a communal sink etc.

  5. Erika 9 years ago

    Thank god for slim line adhesive pads, particularly the overnighters. I can remember the plastic gusset knickers and thick pads. Add another two pairs of ordinary knickers over the top to deal with the inevitable leakage. Always managed to cause chafing to my thighs 🙁 And Ponstan. Made periods bearable (along with the hot water bottle).

    I’ve got several reusable fabric pads, but they just don’t handle really heavy flows. On the plus side, the water they get soaked in is great for the pot plants.

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 9 years ago

      I saw a whole lot of reusable fabric pads and I was very intrigued! Thanks for sharing your experiences… I thought they might have been a touch ineffective on a heavy day!

  6. Alyson 9 years ago

    I remember finally needing products again after a pregnancy in the 90s and discovering things had changed to ultra thin pads with wings! I never trusted them after some inadvertent waxing situations! Moon cups for me 🙂

  7. missellie13 9 years ago

    I have a Mirena, which is hormonal but nowhere near as high as the levels in the pill. I don’t have kids and it has stopped my periods entirely, yay! It was put in under a general but most people, I’ve since found out, have them done in the doctor’s office like a Pap smear.

  8. Bec 9 years ago

    I used to love Judy Blume books as a kid and I remember being seriously confused by the pad and belt scenario that Margaret (from Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret) and others had to wrangle. Thank goodness for self adhesive pads and tampons. Speaking of tampons, I saw a bunch of applicator ones in the cupboard at work and thought of that blog post you did on applicator vs non applicator that went nuts. I find applicator ones so weird!

  9. Ruth D 9 years ago

    It was belts and hideously fat pads for me as my mother distrusted the ones with adhesive. And I vividly remember the moddess big knickers from the picture further up. My mum used actual towelling towels and the belt with safety pins and washed them ready for the next time. Thank god she didn’t make me use them is all I can say. I hated the whole clumsy mess and used to nick her tampons (which she only used when she was going out). Much more comfy! 🙂

  10. nessbow 9 years ago

    I’ve used a whole spectrum of menstrual products. I got my first period in the 90’s and used adhesive pads for years. When I got a bit older I began using tampons. I started getting yeast infections and horrible skin irritation after every period, which I realised was due to the plastic backing of the pads and the absorbency agents in tampons. So I began researching reusable menstrual products.

    I started by buying a few cloth pads, and loved them. I’m pretty squeamish about bodily fluids but I had no trouble using the re-usable pads. They are really comfortable and easy to wash and they don’t get that awful “period” smell you get with disposable pads.

    About four months ago I bought a Lunette cup and I love it. It has a bit of a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it it is so convenient. I do a lot of yoga and the cup is super comfortable. It’s really hygienic and I’ve never had a leak. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  11. OMG I remember taking a pad in a brown paper bag to school for a year ‘just in case’ I got my period. I also remember a tampon rolling outs my school bag in the bus in high school…oh the shame! Early menopause means no more periods 🙂

  12. Cheryl 9 years ago

    Wow! I never really thought about this till i read your post. I’m 31 so i’ve only ever know pads and tampons….

  13. Aviva Sheb'a 9 years ago

    Oh the memories this brought up! Those pads with belts you hooked them into…aaaarrgggh! Imagine being at ballet school in white leotards and pale pink tights. Oh the relief when Mum found out about tampons. Nobody mentioned sea sponges, which I used for years. Used half cloth nappies for a while when I started to menstruate again when Rosie was about 13 months. Made great garden fertiliser from the water I soaked them in. Best Brussels sprouts in history. They were delicious, which is really something for that veg. I have digressed.

  14. Carol Cruikshank, Lake Illawarra NSW Australia 9 years ago

    I have just become involved with a project called DAYS FOR GIRLS, started in USA, NOW IN AUSTRALIA. Kit goes to girls in developing countries enabling them to stay in school and is life changing. Google the site, get involved with a donation or sewing, or general help and make a difference in a girl’s life.
    (my own history awful as mother really didn’t tell me anything – made me use old baby nappies in the 50’s so no pads and going to school awful, until I started work and hd own money. Wasn’t told about tampons until in my early 20’s. Hard time with heavy flow due to fibroids and happy to have had hysterectomy at age 44 which gave me a new lease on life. Don’t miss all that mess one little bit, but now happy to help girls in other countries and outback Oz. I think all the trendy packaging and choices make the whole thing much easier for young girls today.


  15. Jess 8 years ago

    I have the copper IUD with no weight or other hormonal issues. Same thing about heavier periods. I will say I tried using the Diva Cup and it actually pulled out my IUD and I had to get a new one inserted. Close to being my most painful experience ever! Also, if your partner is *ahem* well-endowed, certain positions can be mildly painful….but that might just be me and my difficult lady bits.

  16. Oh yes, the belt was awful. They slipped forward and back so the possibility of leakage was ever present. The little lumps from the pad attaching to the belt tended to show through your clothes. Also, being that it was the 60’s, we were trying to conceal that under a miniskirt (along with garters and fishnet stockings, because pantyhose was not available yet). I had a rather traumatic adolescence.

  17. Clare Boyle 8 years ago

    I’ve been on Cerelle for a while since my cycle gets out of whack sometimes. (i.e. it won’t stop then I need to take Northeristerone)
    I am researching a novel right now and my main female character was 18 years old in 1965… and she starts hers while she’s in college and she has no idea what it is because she wasn’t taught about it at home or in school…
    I have 2 questions
    1 what would have been done for a woman in the same situation as me? (menses that refused to stop without medicine to stop it)
    2 where would the products be available in 1965?

  18. gloria 7 years ago

    I can’t imagine using a menstrual cup… on a bad day I can fill a super pad in an hour, so would it spill/leak with movement at work? I’ve used sea sponge before, but only on a light day and that was terrific. But I hate the whole putting in and getting it out thing! I’m on the large side, so there’s no elbow room in most cubicles for me to get it out. I certainly wouldn’t wipe out a cup with TP in a public restroom… you don’t know who has touched that tp and people do weird things.

    I’m currently investigating diy sewn cloth pads, but only for when I’m at home. The two days I’m at work or when I’m shopping, I still think I’ll stick to disposable, even though I hate them.

    I had an interesting experience in high school once at sick bay, with the old ‘pin ’em in’ kind – it was actually superior to the modern disposable in absorbency, but kinda hard on the knickers! 🙂

  19. anne denman 7 years ago

    My Mother lived through the war in the UK (bombing etc), of course, rations. Mum had lost her mother at 5 , so she was taught by a woman from school, how to make reusable pads. To make pads you can use a variety of items: You could use unusable sheets, linen, tired clothing but ironically it was cloth diaper and its shaped were most suited. You’d come home and soak them in a bleach soap solution , rinse, rinse and hand on the line in the basement.

    My sister and I used them at times to as we were a poor family, but we did have it clean, so this solution was fine. But once the tampax came in the scene, our mobility changed, our confidence change. You did have to ask a friend “Is there a leak?”

  20. TammiDallaston 6 years ago

    I was given my mother’s sanitary belt to wear for my first few periods in the early 1980’s. A huge, purple, elastic monstrosity. Then came the winged sanitary towels that threatened to pull off your pubic hair with each use, and after not too long I started buying my own tampons. Even then there was the belief that you weren’t a virgin if you used tampons…

  21. Gail LeMay 6 years ago

    The sanitary belt was so uncomfortable! I was in high school between 1955 and 1959. The belt would ride up and dig into your tailbone …very very painful when I was at school I would change classes and run in the bathroom and try to adjust it to take some of the pressure away from the tailbone area. All the girls wore a panty Carovel in those days. The panty girdle was helpful in keeping the pad in place Finally came the tampon which all my girlfriends war except on later days we would use these late days pad with sticky tape that stuck to your underwear. Now called pantiliners these were a godsend The only thing better is no period all after menopause. It’s the best thing about old age!!

  22. sarahsmithwriter 6 years ago

    Thanks Carly. I’m writing a novel set in C19th Scotland & trying to find out what my characters would have used during their period. This was really helpful and interesting!

  23. Carol May 4 years ago

    I was introduced to a product called NIKINI. It was a plastic holder like a bikini with two tabs with pop studs which fitted through two holes in the pads . This held them in place . This was in 1962/3 . They were a lot thinner than ordinary pads and were very easy to use.

  24. Sarah J. Roberts 3 years ago

    Thank you, Carly Jacobs, for putting together everything in feminine hygiene products. I think you have covered all the major points in this article, I will share this with my network as well. keep it up!

  25. Tricia 2 years ago

    I used a belt and started mine in 1975. Guess my mom just went and got what she always used. They were so gross and the pads were enormous with long ends to put through the notches. They were messy and never really washed out. So glad that things changed!

  26. Louise Boss 2 years ago

    Had my first period in 1954. Mom hadn’t told me anything and I thought I had cancer and was dying. She gave me one of her belts and Kotex pads she used. I preferred Modest I found in school rather than Kotex. The belt was elastic and imagine wearing one your Mom had worn and the elastic worn out. It was awful. Didn’t start using a tampon until 1970 when I lost my virginity. Hurrah for tampons.


  1. […] P.P.P.S The first menstrual cups were invented in the 1930s and were made of vulcanised rubber.  […]

  2. […] a whole new meaning to being ‘on the rag’, doesn’t it? Women living on farms would use a piece of sheepskin as a menstrual aid and then boil it clean with each use. Rumour has it that some ladies would simply ‘free-bleed’ […]

  3. […] During this era women were still using rags and cotton, mostly using products designed for babies nappies. They would pin folded fabric with flat cotton padding to their underwear and wash and re-use them. Sanitary aprons and bloomers, made of thick fabric were available for women to prevent their clothes from staining. These garments weren’t for absorption, they were to protect their clothing from inevitable leaks. (Source) […]

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