The First Sanitary Products
Sanitary towels, as we might recognise them today, didnt come about until the late 19th to early 20th century. Industrialised weaving and spinning meant that fabric became cheaper, bringing about the emergence of cloth towels for women.
While the evidential absence of sanitary products poses a difficulty for historians, there’s a similar silence surrounding medication for period pains. One hypothesis suggests that they did exist but, like womens experiences of menstruation, were simply not written about. Instead, it was likely that remedies were simply shared from one woman to another.
The sources we have tell you what a women could have expected from her period, says Fissell. Its a shame we cant find out more about individual experiences but, unfortunately, its as close as we can get. How did women cope? Its a complete mystery.
Mary E Fissell is professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University. She was talking to Ellie Cawthorne on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
Listen | Professor Mary Fissell unearths the history of womens reproductive health in the pre-modern Atlantic world, including menstruation, fertility and childbirth:
Periods Through History: A Menstrual Timeline
It’s that time of the month again. Even with modern-day medicine and menstrual products, it’s still a hassle. How did menstruators cope back in the day when these products were not as readily available? Menstruation has been a part of human society for so long that we are unaware of the struggle it posed for menstruators in the past. This blog post will show you how menstruators have managed to go through their periods starting from as far back as ancient civilizations!
In the ancient civilizations of the Babylonian, Hindu, and Chinese, menstruation was viewed as a sign of fertility and a positive omen for the home. The Aztecs and Mayans believed that the menstruating woman was considered to be the most important person, who was treated with respect by society. In other civilizations, however, menstruation was associated with numerous myths surrounding witchcraft and the ability to ward off storms! Sadly, not a lot of information was recorded on the topic in the past, but what was yielded some amazing facts!
The Ancient Civilizations
Menstruators in ancient Greece also used tampons by wrapping bits of wood together with lint, others used sea sponges as tampons, which interestingly, is still in practice today! Romans were also known to use pads as well as tampons made of wool.
Medieval Times- England
The Tudor Era
Victorian Era to the late 1900s
The self-adhesive pads that we know and use today were invented in the 1970s.
Modern Day Period
The 1800s: The First Disposable Napkin
Until the 1880s, American and European women continued the DIY approach to period care. On its website, the Museum of Menstruationsays that these women either made their own menstrual pads, bought washable pads, or opted to have their clothes absorb the blood. Remember: women had far fewer periods. Menstrual blood was more of a novelty than a regular occurrence every month from about age 13 to 51, according to Sharra Vostral, an associate professor of history at Purdue University and author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. If youre pregnant multiple times, youre not having your period, and if youre lactating multiple times youre not having your period. If you have five or six kids, thats 10 years of your menstrual life, she told me. Thats a lot fewer periods, so dealing with blood on your clothes didnt happen that often.
The first disposable sanitary napkin
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Period Drama: That Time Of The Month In Victorian America
Thats in the past. Thats more from the Victorian era! Isabel Maos* daughter exclaimed. I was interviewing Isabel about her experiences with menstruation for my book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Isabel, an immigrant from Taiwan, figured her American-born daughter must be fibbing when she claimed her swim team coach let her practice during her period. Her daughter, who had just walked into the room, rolled her eyes in protest. She explained that she was always encouraged to play in gym class and participate in sports unless she was feeling really crampy, and she had only felt the need to sit out once during high school. Isabel laughingly conceded that her worries were perhaps outdated. Oh, thats called Victorian. I see! Old-fashioned!
Isabel and her daughter, like many of us, associate the Victorian era with an image of a delicate woman swooning on a couch, incapacitated by her monthly visitor. Where did this image originate? And how closely did it hew to the reality of womens lives in Victorian America?
A patient lies on a chaise-longue, while a nurse brings her some refreshment. Courtesy of Wiki Commons
*Interviewee names are pseudonyms.
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About the Author
How Did Women Deal With Period Pains Throughout History
Women have been suffering from period pain and discomfort from time immemorial and while it is widely thought that women had lighter periods than those of today, partly due to poor nutrition and partly due to the fact that women had the menopause in their late 30s, we know that women have been trying to find remedies to help get relief from menstrual pain and discomfort every month.
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Early 1900s: Belts And Better Absorption
In the early 20th Century, women drove innovation around period care products, and the bloodiness of World War I had an unintended consequence. During the war, nurses in France noticed that the cellulose they used for bandages absorbed blood much better than cotton. They began using it for their menstrual blood. Kotex caught on and acquired leftover cellulose from the war to introduce a new, highly-absorbent disposable sanitary napkin. Just like Listers Towels, these napkins were disposable but not self-adhesive. That meant you had to attach the pad to a sanitary belt with hooks or safety pins.
To help women get over the perceived embarrassment of shopping for commercial feminine hygiene products, Kotex encouraged shop owners to leave the products on the counter along with a box where women could drop in money. That allowed them to avoid interacting with a shop clerk. By 1927, Modess came on the market as a competitor to Kotex and the industry started to pick up. Although sanitary napkins werent a new idea, Vostral explained, having them manufactured and disposable was the innovation in the teens and 20s.
How Did Women Deal With Their Periods The History Of Menstruation
Hello! Right, let’s do the caveats first off. The history of menstruation is a subject exclusively about women’s experience, and I am a man. If this pisses you off, that’s fine. But what I will say is that I’m a historian interested in the lives of all 108billion people who have ever lived, and half of those people were female. For too long women’s history has been relegated to minor sub-interest, and that’s a poor state of affairs.
So, why blog about the history of menstruation, and not something else?
As the Chief Nerd to CBBC’s Horrible Histories, I spend quite a lot of my time answering people’s questions about daily life in the past . Often these queries slip out from mouths that are already contorted by wrinkle-nosed disgust, and I’ll see my interrogator pre-emptively braced for gruesome tales of toilets, unwashed bodies, and rotten teeth festering in diseased gums. For many of us, the past is synonymous with ghastliness, and that’s part of its disgusting allure. But there is a particular question that only gets asked by women, and it’s usually delivered in a hushed, wincing tone: “how did women deal with their periods?”
The fact that this question comes up so often at my public talks suggests to me that this is a subject deserving of wider attention. So, while I’m certainly no expert, I’ve had a go at briefly summarising some of the more obvious elements in the story of how women dealt with their menstruation.
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The History Of Periods: Medieval To Modern Menstruation
While were still far from where we need to be to achieve period equity worldwide, our society has come a long way in terms of knowledge about menstruation and the products we use to manage our monthly cycles. Today, were a click away from accurate information about menstrual health, were working towards smashing the stigmas associated with periods, and we have better access than ever before to a diverse range of period products to fit the needs of everyone who menstruates. But you might be shocked to know that even as recently as our parents first periods, things looked very different. And what about before that? How have periods changed through the ages? Lets talk about the history of menstruation!
Ancient Beliefs About Menstruation
It is said that little has been documented from history about menstruation. One possible reason was that most scribes who recorded their ancient daily lives back then were males.
Just when you think menstrual hygiene in some countries today are already bad, it may have been worse in the ancient times.
Aside from having no modern access to menstrual sanitary products back then, menstruation carried a stigma in ancient society as well.
Given the lack of knowledge about how our body works back then, menstruation had been a subject of beliefs and superstitions.
Some considered it as holy, while some saw it as a curse. Likewise, menstruating women became associated with sorcery and magic.
Roman author and philosopher, Pliny the Elder, believed that menstruating women can stop hail storms and lightning. On the other hand, Mayans believed that menstruation was the end result of a punishment after the Moon Goddess had a forbidden relationship with the Sun God. Apparently, the Moon Goddess blood can transform into different animals, plants, and even diseases.
Moreover, it was also believed that ancient women had lesser blood flow. Likewise, it is said that menopause began as early as 40 years of age. One possible reason was most probably due to the lack of nutrition.
Nonetheless, the main victims of this widespread misinformation were the menstruating women.
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What Is Toxic Shock Syndrome
Toxic shock syndrome is a rare but sometimes deadly condition caused by bacteria that make toxins or poisons. In 1980, 63 women died from TSS. A certain brand of super absorbency tampons was said to be the cause. These tampons were taken off the market.
Today, most cases of TSS are not caused by using tampons. But, you could be at risk for TSS if you use more absorbent tampons than you need for your bleeding or if you do not change your tampon often enough . Menstrual cups, cervical caps, sponges, or diaphragms may also increase your risk for TSS if they are left in place for too long . Remove sponges within 30 hours and cervical caps within 48 hours.9
If you have any symptoms of TSS, take out the tampon, menstrual cup, sponge, or diaphragm, and call 911 or go to the hospital right away.
Symptoms of TSS include:10
- Sudden high fever
Your Period Changes Throughout Your Life
Just when you start to feel like you can predict exactly when your period is going to show, everything can change. For that, you can thank the hormone shifts that happen throughout your lifetime.
Once you get your very first period, your cycles may be longer, meaning more time may pass between when one period starts to the next. A typical cycle for a teenage girl may be 21 to 45 days. Over time, they get shorter and more predictable, averaging about 21 to 35 days.
Hormone changes that happen during perimenopause — the years before menopause when your body starts to make less estrogen — can throw you for a loop. The time from one period to the next may get shorter or longer, and you may have heavier or lighter bleeding during your period. This phase can last up to 10 years before you start menopause and stop getting your period for good.
Gradual life changes are normal, but sudden, unusual issues like very heavy bleeding or missed periods are not. Talk with your doctor if you notice that something seems off.
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The Period You Get While On The Pill Isnt A ‘true’ Period
Sure, you bleed during the week that you take the sugar pills. But technically thatâs âmonthly withdrawal bleeding.â Itâs slightly different than a regular period.
Normally, you ovulate in the middle of your menstrual cycle. If the egg your ovaries release isnât fertilized, your hormone levels drop, causing you to shed the lining inside your uterus, and you get your period.
Birth control pills, though, prevent ovulation. With most types, you take hormones for 3 weeks followed by 1 week of pills without them. Though they keep your body from releasing an egg, they usually donât prevent it from building up the lining of your uterus all month. The period-like bleeding during that fourth week is your bodyâs reaction to the lack of hormones from the last week of the pill.
What Is A Normal Amount Of Bleeding During My Period
The average woman loses about two to three tablespoons of blood during her period.8 Your periods may be lighter or heavier than the average amount. What is normal for you may not be the same for someone else. Also, the flow may be lighter or heavier from month to month.
Your periods may also change as you get older. Some women have heavy bleeding during perimenopause, the transition to menopause. Symptoms of heavy menstrual bleeding may include:
- Bleeding through one or more pads or tampons every one to two hours
- Passing blood clots larger than the size of quarters
- Bleeding that often lasts longer than eight days
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How Long Does A Woman Usually Have Periods
On average, women get a period for about 40 years of their life.6,7 Most women have regular periods until perimenopause, the time when your body begins the change to menopause. Perimenopause, or transition to menopause, may take a few years. During this time, your period may not come regularly. Menopause happens when you have not had a period for 12 months in a row. For most women, this happens between the ages of 45 and 55. The average age of menopause in the United States is 52.
Periods also stop during pregnancy and may not come back right away if you breastfeed.
But if you dont have a period for 90 days , and you are not pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor or nurse. Your doctor will check for pregnancy or a health problem that can cause periods to stop or become irregular.
A Brief History Of The Menstrual Period: How Women Dealt With Their Cycles Throughout The Ages
If stigma around menstruation exists today, you can rest assured it was much worse in earlier times throughout history. Without much knowledge about biology or the human reproductive system, ancient and medieval humans simply saw menstruation as females bleeding without being injured a phenomenon that appeared to correspond to changes in the moon. For thousands of years, menstruating women were wrapped up in labels and misinformed religious beliefs at times considered holy and mystical, at other times seen cursed and untouchable.
Often, menstruation was completely omitted from mans documented history, relegated to the womans sphere. So heres a brief history of menstruation in both scientific and cultural life, considering the fact that there still remains far more to discover about the subject.
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How Ancient Women Dealt With Their Periods
The early version of tampons was believed to be invented by Egyptians. It is made from papyrus, a plant that was abundant in that area. Greeks reportedly used cotton lint and wrapped it around wood splinters, while Romans used wool.
Meanwhile, Dr. Sara Read, an English Lecturer at the Loughborough Universitys School of the Arts, English, and Drama, wrote about how ancient women dealt with their menstruation.
According to Dr. Read, women during the Middle Ages either used rags or other absorbent materials or simply let themselves bleed into their clothes.
To cover up the scent of menstrual blood, medieval women were said to have carried sweet-smelling herbs with them. More so, they also used odd medicines such as powdered toad to lessen menstrual flow.
As for menstrual cramps, medically known as dysmenorrhea, it was also said that the Church did not allow the use of any form of pain relief. Apparently, such painful cramps should be a reminder of Eves original sin.
How Did Ancient Women Deal With Their Menstrual Cycle
In biblical times, ancient Hebrews upheld laws of Niddah, in which menstruating women went into seclusion and had to be separated from the rest of society for seven clean days. Despite these mythological or even medicinal hints at menstruation, however, its generally unknown what women used as ancient tampons or pads.
Is there any history of women having menstruation?
Though females have experienced menstruation since before humans even fully evolved as a species, theres very little documentation about periods among ancient peoples. This is likely due to the fact that most scribes were men, and history was mainly recorded by men.
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How And Why Did Women Evolve Periods
Thousands of devotees from all over India gather on occasion of Ambubachi Mela, which is celebrated… to mark the menstruation period of the goddess and during which occasion the sanctorum of the shrine remains closed to worshippers. The Ambubach Mela runs from June 22-26.
What is the evolutionary benefit or purpose of having periods? originally appeared on Quora – the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Answer by Suzanne Sadedin, Ph.D in evolutionary biology from Monash University, on Quora:
The answer to this question is one of the most illuminating and disturbing stories in human evolutionary biology, and almost nobody knows about it. And so, my friends, gather close, and hear the extraordinary tale of how the woman got her period.
Contrary to popular belief, most mammals do not menstruate. In fact, it’s a feature exclusive to the higher primates and certain bats*. What’s more, modern women menstruate vastly more than any other animal. And it’s bloody stupid . A shameful waste of nutrients, disabling, and a dead giveaway to any nearby predators. To understand why we do it, you must first understand that you have been lied to, throughout your life, about the most intimate relationship you will ever experience: the mother-fetus bond.
What does all this have to do with menstruation? We’re getting there.
Links / References:
References for the mouse implantation studies: