History of Menstruation

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].


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24 Responses to History of Menstruation

  1. Please note that ample evidence exists to show that women of all classes did not “bleed into their clothing” at any period of history as a common practice. Evidence apart, it doesn’t make sense. Clothing, even among the poorer classes, pre-industrial, was expensive and often passed down through the generations. “Disposable” wasn’t a concept they would be familiar with. It makes much more sense to use rags that had passed their use-by date for clothing or other purposes, wouldn’t it? (they were pinned to the shift or to a belt worn around the waist)
    There is no reliable evidence and no references in published and readily available data, including private letters and journals currently in public collections (and by the 18th century, almost everyone was literate to a certain degree) that this was ever a common practice.

  2. Sekita-Ra says:

    In 1990 Britain, Suffragist Selina Cooper was horrified to discover that some lower class women still did not use any menstrual devices. -it would seem to me this date is wrong, copied from above??

  3. JohnR says:

    You might want to check the date on your “1990 Britain” phrase.

  4. ksstover says:

    I think you have a typo – “In 1990 Britain, Suffragist Selina Cooper was horrified to discover that some lower class women still did not use any menstrual devices.”. I think you mean 1890.

  5. Magamy says:

    My eyes have been opened

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  7. luna says:

    why…..why would they just let it flow…….I mean, doesn’t it feel gross to them?! why..

  8. Nova says:

    Great to have these details available especially when writing about mothers and grandmothers. Also enlightening to see shifts of cultural attitudes about menstruation during history, at least as much as was recorded.

  9. Janeda says:

    I believe you put the wrong date selena cooper great britian 1990 im assuming was either 1890 or 1920

  10. Brenda Rose says:

    It would be interesting to see more in depth information about how women of the earlier centuries managed their menstrual flow. In biblical times women were considered “unclean” and were made to gather together outside of the camp with the other women who were also having their cycles. Initially this sounds really sexist and discriminatory. Women that are around each other on a routine basis often have menstrual cycles at about the same time. I would imagine that they actually looked forward to their monthly bonding time with their sisters and friends who menstrauted at the same time each month. And they likely came home to husbands who appreciated them a little or alot more after having had to deal with the kids, meals, etc for the week or so that she was gone. Or maybe they even had close friends that traded off babysitting & meals for the weeks that each was away from the camp. Basically women had relationships that were different in many ways then. However, we still can come together in this generation as sisters who support and love each other through our journeys together, wherever we are in our moon cycles.

    • Annamae says:

      I literally almost wish this was still the case, haha! It would seriously be so awesome to be ‘forced’ to take a week off from work while on your period. I mean not having to leave the city or whatnot, but hey have a period party! Why not, right?

  11. jennifer shep. says:

    this helped me understand the worse conditions they had back then

  12. Alexandra says:

    I think you mean 1890 not 1990

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  15. Diana says:

    That’s really fascinating information. We should also remember that menstruation is invariably a reason why only lower class women worked. Now that we have lots of products available that time of the month doesn’t stop us but I imagine it would have then.

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  17. kathena eve stone says:

    i say regaurdless to the typo, i say its pretty interesting. through time, tampons and pads were used… but those very poor that had not a dime, they had no choice… alot of people that lived in slavery, or been attacked and brought down had no money, so what choice did they have ecept to bleed into they’re clothing… but the man was right, they never really bled in that time because they would be breastfeeding, pregnant mostly… never really had downtime to actually menestrate ont he regular like us. the renessance era had alot of superstitions… to bleed is to attract a man because they seemed fertile. now, imagine the queens, even the other queens we don’t notice? they menstrate, but they had the finest… including powder to hide it. in this time, men can be gangstas and kill a man, but a woman bleeding is so unattractive, they don’t wanna see it. i’d love to learn more in detail about this. thanks.

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  19. CathyAnn says:

    I remember having a conversation with my mother around the time when I first started menstrating – in the late ’50’s. She told me that women used to use rags and a belt of sorts to hold the rags in place. Her mother was born in 1886.

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  22. Marti says:

    The term “on the rag” came from women using rags to bleed on during their cycle. Those rags were then washed and reused, like diapers for babies. I do not believe the notion of just bleeding on their clothes. That is ridiculous

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