The Evolution of Menstrual Products: From the 1800s to Present

The global menstrual products market is expected to grow to $27.7 billion by 2025. Woah. But where did we start? How far have we come? What products were people using hundreds years of ago? How have we evolved since then? 

Let’s dive right in to find out. 

1800s-1900s

For most of this century, homemade was best I guess? They used woven fabric or flannel to make homemade cloths to use during their menstrual cycle. Soon, people started having concerns about possible bacteria growth (duh!) from these homemade cloths since they were reused between each cycle and cleaning may not have been adequate. This was the start of the feminine hygiene market. Between 1854 and 1915, twenty patents were filed for menstrual hygiene products. Some of these patents included the first menstrual cup, rubber underwear, and Lister’s towels. The first menstrual cups were often made of aluminum or hard rubber. 

These kinds of products were first made available to the public in the 1890s through catalogs. Some other menstrual products included an elastic belt you would attach to a pad and an antiseptic pad. Even though there was finally an influx of menstrual hygiene products in the market, the taboo surrounding menstruation was still prevalent which made potential customers hesitant to even purchase the products in public which led to some failed product launches. 

1900s-1920s

The products from these two decades were heavily influenced from lessons learned during WW1. Nurses first discovered that cellulose (the most abundant organic polymer) was a better material than cloth bandages for absorbing blood. The Kotex sanitary napkin (made from surplus high-absorption war bandages) became the first commercial success for sanitary napkins. 

1930s-1940s

The 1930s produced an influx of new inventions in period products. Modern disposable tampons were patented in 1933 under the name “Tampax.” Tampons were deemed a better option by the healthcare professionals due to hygiene issues regarding the exposure of pads to fecal bacteria. Most women did not stick to pads after learning how to properly insert tampons, according to healthcare and promotional interviews. Many societies, however, were reluctant to accept tampons due to moral issues regarding virginity, masturbation, and the possibility of using them as contraceptives. However, since people were still suspicious of tampons, pad advances began to thrive.

In 1956, Mary Kenner, a female African-American inventor, invented the first sanitary belt with an adhesive to secure the pad in place. She created an adjustable sanitary belt with a moisture-proof napkin pocket built in. Her patent for the sanitary belt, unfortunately, was dismissed for thirty years due to racial discrimination. Women today find this menstrual pad to be incredibly useful. You absolute icon Mary, THANK YOU!

1950s-1990s

During these decades, period products were still being improved in innovative ways. In 1972, the first beltless pads were introduced, resulting in versions such as heavy flow, light flow, and mini-pads. Modern maxi pads and pads with wings first appeared on the market throughout the 1980s.

Tampons' popularity continues to grow. However, between 1979 and 1996, over 5,000 cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome were documented, causing widespread concern. The majority of the cases were related to a particular tampon brand and products that are no longer available. 

Although the medical issues did not deter women from using the products, they did demonstrate a lack of government oversight over the products' protection and composition. As a result, a greater emphasis has been placed on more organic/natural alternatives. Leona Chalmers improved the menstrual cup in 1956, using softer materials to create a product which is more similar to what we use today.

A powder that could be injected into the vaginal canal to weaken the pH of period blood and avoid bacterial growth was one of the more drastic options proposed (honestly WHAT?). Reusable menstrual cups, period sponges, and biodegradable alternatives became more common in the 1970s as feminist and environmentalist movements gained traction.

Free bleeding was embraced by women who resented being forced to conceal and feel ashamed of their cycles as the feminist movement encouraged them to become more accepting of their bodies.

2000s-present 

Since then, the market for period products has significantly expanded, especially when compared to what was used 200 years ago. Even standard pads and tampons have been innovated to be made from organic materials which is better for your body and the environment. You can now also use menstrual underwear and menstrual cups. There are even reusable pads you can use that are made of cloth which is also better for the environment. 

Women were expected to be more feminine, hygienic, and capable if they concealed their menstruation from the start. Marketers continue to use strategies built on the fear of knowing today, from odorized goods to subtle packaging. However, these advertisements have taken on a more positive tone recently, depicting feminine care products as empowering, encouraging women to take control of their bodies.

Advances in menstrual innovation have had a massive influence on women's wellness and professional and personal freedoms throughout history. Throughout history, menstrual inventions have paved the way for women and people with cycles, from patents to pilots.

*Illustration by Roza Nozari

We still have a way to go in removing the stigma and taboo surrounding periods but seeing how far we’ve come since even 1800 is motivating. Let’s get to work. 

*Sources include Clue, Wikipedia, GlobalNewsWire

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