Sanitary products are not the most attractive items at the best of times. How fortunate we are to live in the times of disposable, efficient protection! Next time you feel the ardour of dealing with your period, take some time to reflect on just how far humble sanitary protection has come.

Through the ages, women have used either tampons or bandages for sanitary protection. But until World War 1, the only significant improvement over the basic bandage – which really was more a statement of class anyway – was that the civilized women of the Roman Empire used cloth bandages; whereas the ‘savages’ in Africa and Australia used bandages made of grass or vegetable fibre.

Thrifty Frenchwomen were still washing out their menstrual rags in the 1940s; in parts of South America, disposable pads have only been marketed in the last 30 years.

Women often used a variety of home-made menstrual pads which they crafted from various fabrics, leftover scraps, grass, or other absorbent materials, to collect their period. Many probably used nothing at all. Women often used strips of folded old cloth (rags) to catch their menstrual flow, which is why the term “on the rag” is used to refer to menstruation.

In underdeveloped countries, reusable or makeshift pads are still used to collect menstrual blood. Rags, soil, and mud are also reportedly used for collecting menstrual flow.

Among tampon users, there was more variety. In ancient Japan women used from eight to twelve paper tampons a day, held in place by a bandage called kama (‘pony’). For centuries, Indonesian women made tampons from vegetable fibre. Roman women wore tampons of soft wool, and Egyptian women, rolls of soft papyrus. Rolls of grass and roots served women of Equatorial Africa.

Until about 1925, American women wore a nappy of birds-eye or flannel, which were washed and re-used. These were cumbersome, uncomfortable and often caused pain. Johnson & Johnson manufactured ‘Lister’s Towels’ in 1896 the first commercial, disposable pad, made of gauze covered cotton.

Disposable menstrual pads grew from Benjamin Franklin’s invention designed to save soldiers with buckshot wounds. Several of the first disposable pad manufacturers were also manufacturers of bandages, which gives an indication of what these products would have been like.

The first of the disposable pads were generally in the form of a cotton wool or similar fibrous rectangle covered with an absorbent liner. The liner ends were extended front and back so as to fit through loops in a special girdle or belt worn beneath undergarments. This design was notorious for slipping either forward or back of the intended position.

Even after disposable pads were commercially available, for several years they were too expensive for many women to afford. It took several years for disposable menstrual pads to become commonplace and the billion dollar industry it is today.


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