Single-use menstrual products like pads and tampons weren’t always “the way”—and luckily they’re going out of style again. (Shameless plug: Try period panties instead!) Usually the way people used to do things is wrong, but when it comes to menstruation, women of the past may have been on to something.
The first applicator-style tampon like the ones we use today was invented by E.C. Haas in 1931, and was commercially sold as “Tampax”. Kotex developed the most commercially successful disposable pad in the U.S. 10 years prior, but they were hardly the first to develop this product. It’s likely that Hartmann, a German company, created the first commercially-sold disposable pad in 1896.
However, before these developments, there wasn’t a commercial market for menstrual care. So what were women using?
Yes—this is where the phrase “on the rag” comes from. For many periods of history, across different parts of the globe, women used cloth rags to soak up period blood, which they would then wash, hang up to dry, and reuse again when their period cycled back around.
This was sometimes called a “loincloth” for menstruation, like in ancient Egypt.
It’s actually a totally reasonable and normal way to handle your period. Luckily, nowadays we have underwear that serves the same function. No more clunky rags, now your underwear can be the rags—and they’re still reusable!
Jumping back in time, ancient Egyptians used to use papyrus grass as a “throwaway tampon,” although it’s likely people also utilized cloth that was made into a loop and then inserted. This cloth tampon was called the “tyet” or “Isis knot,” in reference to the goddess Isis.
The Egyptians were trailblazers in the world of tampons; about 300 years prior to evidence that exists of the Isis knot, there were writings about using lint as an absorption method in the vaginal canal. Although the lint method was written about as a possible contraception method, it’s not unlikely that it was also being used as a kind of tampon at this time as well.
Other than these Egyptian inventions, most ancient and historical vaginal insertion devices similar to tampons were suppositories. It wasn’t until Tampax was invented that tampons became common practice for managing periods again.
The Diva Cup seemed innovative to me at age 16, when I thought my only options were single-use cotton-based products, but it is hardly the first of its kind. The most commonly known menstrual cup was developed by Leona Chalmers in the 1930s with the fun name “The Tassette.” Chalmers described the Tassette as being made of “vulcanized rubber,” which sounds painful, but is actually what we refer to nowadays as “latex rubber.” Menstrual cups today are made from Liquid Silicone Rubber (LSR), although companies often describe it as “medical-grade silicone,” because it is easier for the average consumer to recognize what that means.
Unfortunately, Chalmers wasn’t the first to come up with this idea. S.L. Hockert was able to patent a flimsy, condom-esque version in 1867. This is likely only because there were no women working in the patent office at the time in order to block this kind of torture device from being approved and getting to masquerade around the commercial market as a “menstrual product.”
The “Hoosier” Sanitary Belt
Ignoring the Indiana-centric name, this product was weirdly erotic, as it’s visually reminiscent of a jockstrap. The “Hoosier” sanitary belt is believed to be an early-1900s device worn by women in the mid- and western United States. Unfortunately, it has gone out of style as time has gone by, but our Leah Thong is a pretty close modern equivalent.
Before the “Hoosier” sanitary belt was developed, there were other belt-esque mechanisms to hold pieces of cloth up and catch menstrual blood. The very first of these was patented as the “Catamenial Sack” by Alfred A. Starr in 1854! It’s too bad those Hoosiers had to spoil us with elastomeric fibers and a fun design. Otherwise our contemporary pads and period underwear might still have disturbingly clinical names like “catamenial sack”!
Overall, we have it pretty good nowadays with the many different options we have to safely deal with period blood. Personally, I’m glad to be living in 2021 and not ancient Egypt, or—God forbid!—the 1850s.