The History of Periods: How Women Have Dealt With Menstruation Through the Ages

Women have experienced periods since before we fully evolved as a species. If you’ve ever wondered about women’s hygiene through history, you’ve come to the right place!

Women’s hygiene through history is a very interesting story. It’s crazy to think that while I get my period once a month for 30+ years, I don’t know much about it. Since becoming a self-proclaimed expert thanks to this blog, I’ve realized I still don’t know how this whole period deal has evolved over the years. If you’ve ever wondered about menstrual history, you’ve come to the right place!

Ancient menstrual myths

What we know about the history of menstrual hygiene begins with ancient civilizations. Women have experienced periods since before humans were completely evolved as a species. Despite this, there’s very little documentation about women’s periods in ancient history, probably due to the fact that most of the scribes were men who chose not to record menstruation.

What we do know is that women likely experienced a much lighter menstrual cycle than we do today, partly due to malnourishment and partly due to the fact that women started menopause as early as 40. Today, women usually begin menopause around age 50.

Historians also believe that menstruating women were associated with magic and sorcery. For example, Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman could stop hail storms and lightning, as well as kill crops. It was also believed they could kill bees, dim mirrors and rust weapons just by looking at them.

While we know about these crazy myths surrounding menstruation, no one knows for sure what women used when they had their period in ancient times. Some historians believe that Ancient Egyptians used tampons made of softened papyrus, Ancient Greeks made tampons from bits of wood with lint wrapped around them and Romans used pads and tampons made of wool.

Menstruation in medieval times

Once again, there isn’t a ton of documentation surrounding women’s periods in the history of this time. Historians generally conclude most medieval women used rags (hence why we now use the term “on the rag” to describe being on your period) or other absorbent materials during heavy periods. Otherwise, many women would just free bleed into their clothes.

At this time, there was a lot of religious shame surrounding periods, so women went to insane lengths to hide their cycle from the public. They would carry little pouches of sweet-smelling herbs around their neck or waist to neutralize the smell of blood, and they believed that burning a toad and wearing the ashes in a pouch around your waist would ease cramps and heavy flow.

The Victorian era to late 1900s

Sometime in the late 19th century, people started to figure out it wasn’t sanitary for women to constantly bleed into their clothes. This is where the history of menstruation products began. First came the Hoosier sanitary belt (pictured below). From the 1890s to 1970s, women could purchase washable pads that were attached to a belt around the waist. Yes, it looks as uncomfortable as it sounds.

In 1888, the first disposable pads came onto the market. They were known as Lister’s Towels and were developed by Johnson & Johnson. Around the same time, women started using wood pulp bandages found in hospitals as disposable pads. It was a highly absorbent material generally used to bandage wounded soldiers, so it was cheap and worked well for menstrual flow. Eventually, this same material was used in the first Kotex pads.

So what about the history of tampons? In 1929, the first tampon was invented by Dr. Earle Haas. He developed a plug of cotton inserted using two cardboard tubes, removed with a cord that extended outside the vagina. He got the idea from a friend of his who would tuck a sponge inside her vagina to absorb menstrual blood. 

In the 1970s, self-adhesive pads women could attach to their underwear finally came onto the market. Once this came out, the Hoosier sanitary belt was quickly phased out.

Periods in the present day

Tampons and pads have been tweaked over the years to be more absorbent and customized to different levels of flow, hence why you can get “regular,” “super” or “super plus” tampons. There are tons of options available to help you deal with your cycle, including handy-dandy absorbent period underwear, like Knixteen boyshorts!

So there you have it, the history of menstrual hygiene! I have to say, I’m very happy I never had to wear a Hoosier sanitary belt – but I’m kind of sad I can’t stop lightning when I’m on my period.

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