A large chunk of women’s history has been lost because history has been recorded largely by men, and this is probably particularly true when it comes to the history of menstruation & menstrual products. Interestingly, there are some very early historical records of tampons being used (at least for the purpose of contraception).
The Ancient Greeks made tampons from lint wrapped around a small piece of wood, but as far as we know these were only made for contraception (that was the use given for them in the surviving written records, however it is very possible that they were also used for menstruation).
The Ancient Egyptians invented disposable tampons from softened papyrus (and Byzantine women used tampons made of soft white wool).
In the 1700s in France, menstrual blood was viewed as a seductive scent & an indicator that a woman was fertile (according to Alain Corbon’s research).
In 1831 France Charles Négrier proposed the idea that menstruation controlled ovulation (Augustus Gendrin further developed this idea in 1839). By the late 19th Century it was concluded that women menstruated because they failed to conceive. Up until then, physicians believed that menstruation was for the release of unneeded blood and necessary to cool down a woman’s highly emotional (hysterical) state.
In the 1800s in Germany and England some women wore homemade pads but most did not, it was the custom for rural women & women of lower classes to bleed into their clothing (until the late 19th century most women in Britain, Germany North America did not use any menstrual devices at all). Washing and changing underclothing was seen as a health risk (women feared it would block the bleeding or cause more intense bleeding), and most women didn’t wear underpants. The smell & sight of menstrual blood was probably much more common back then than it is today – however, women also probably menstruated much less frequently than we do today (because menarche started later in life & menopause came earlier; women spent a lot of time either breastfeeding or pregnant; and women were much more likely to be malnourished or sick).
In 1878 Britain menstruation was thought to have harmful environmental effects: the British Medical Journal published a statement that said, “”It is a very prevalent belief amongst females both rich and poor that in curing hams, women should not rub the legs of pork with the brine pickle at the time they are menstruating.” Female factory workers in France at the time were asked not to work in sugar refineries during their periods for fear they would spoil the food.
In the 1870s in Europe & the USA, menstrual pads (with suspenders) became commercially available and their use became more widespread. In the 1890s menstrual belts started to replace suspenders.
In the 1880s in Germany doctors started encouraging women to wear menstrual devices & to stop bleeding into their clothes. Until then, most women in Germany and Britain wore no menstrual devices at all & just bled on the ground (few women wore underpants or used pads). In 1899 a female physician wrote the following advice in the book “Health in the House” aimed at German middle-class women: “’It is completely disgusting to bleed into your chemise, and wearing that same chemise for four to eight days can cause infection.”
In the 1890s disposable pads became available in Britain & the USA but few women used them (most women still used reusable pads held in place by a belt or strap).
In 1890 Britain, Suffragist Selina Cooper was horrified to discover that some lower class women still did not use any menstrual devices. She discovered that women working in a mill did not use sanitary napkins, they just bled straight onto the floor (which was covered in straw to absorb the blood). The mill women believed that the smell and flow attracted potential husbands because they were signs of fertility.
In 1921 disposable pads became more popular following WWI (Kotex pads were invented and marketed widely). The pads only began to sell well after women were allowed to deposit money in a box for them without speaking to a shop assistant. The Kotex pads were developed from wartime bandages which American nurses in France had started to use as menstrual pad. These disposable pads were expensive & only affordable to wealthier women (however washable pads did slowly decline in use).
In the 1920s Advertisements in England & the USA started to encourage women to ‘douche’ to hide the smell when they were menstruating.
In 1931 tampons became commercially available in the USA (around the same time women started to wear underwear briefs instead of bloomers). Most women did not use tampons because they were seen as ‘sexual’.
In 1937 the first menstrual cups came on the market, but women didn’t buy them (the companies selling them went under).
In 1945 Dr Robert Dickinson wrote a report encouraging women to use tampons instead of pads. He asserted that pads (not tampons) were bad to wear because they caused women sexual stimulation: “any external menstrual guard […] is responsible for rhythmic play of pressure against surfaces uniquely alert to erotic feeling.” Articles such as these began to encourage more women to use tampons.
In the 1970s self-adhesive pads (our modern day sticky pads) became available for the first time. Women no longer had to wear belts or suspenders. Also, companies began selling the washable pad again (to market towards an environmentally-conscious hippie generation that were comfortable with their own bodies and bodily fluids).
In the 1980s modern menstrual cups such as the Keeper became available (and women started buying them). Such cups continued, however, to be a lesser known and used menstrual product (compared to tampons and pads).
[The 'Museum of Menstruation' website has a huge amount of interesting information on
the history of menstruation, and most of my notes for this post came from their articles].