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String Theories: How the Tampon Came to Be

From wrapping one's pelvis in animal pelts, to enormous menstrual belts, to nonbinary period products, pads and tampons have a long history.
Image via Flickr user Classic Film

Menstruating people have been creating or buying menstrual products almost since the beginning of recorded history; all of these period products exist to help avoid a total vaginal Carrie situation at the most inconvenient of times. Many different items have been shoved up or placed just outsides of our vaginas in order to contain our periods, including but not limited to: animal pelts, sea sponges, and Diva Cups.


(It should be noted that trans and nonbinary individuals have always been members of our human family, but until recently, cis women were the only individuals to whom information regarding menstruation was directed. It was and is also largely assumed that all cis women have a regular menstrual cycle that lasts for several decades, which is not always the case. However, the language in this piece will use sometimes feminine pronouns as a reflection of the way periods were discussed in earlier times. There will also be a discussion of explicitly trans-inclusive period products.)

Everything but the kitchen sink

No, the animal pelt thing is not a joke; before any sort of mass-produced pad or tampon was available, just about anything lying about could have been used to absorb menstrual blood. Early tampons were fashioned out of lightweight wood wrapped in lint in 5th century Greece, and ancient Egyptians used rolled up papyrus.

While it's difficult to find a lot of information about very early menstrual products, there's plenty of evidence demonstrating that women used pretty much whatever was easily available to soak up the flow. Eventually, supplies intended specifically for absorbing menstrual flow emerged. Starting with the period product you either love or loathe: the pad.

Menstrual rags and sassy mathematicians

Pads have been around pretty much forever. One of the earliest references to a menstrual pad is from the 10th century, and it's an epic story indeed: Hypatia, one of Greece's first female mathematicians, is said to have used her sanitary pad to put one of her male students in his place after he got a little fresh. After her student expressed romantic and sexual interest in Hypatia while ignoring her intelligence and teaching skills, Hypatia whipped out her used and bloody menstrual rag, exposing the pad to her student. It's also said that Hypatia accused the student of "base lust" during this incident.

After her student expressed romantic and sexual interest in Hypatia, Hypatia whipped out her used and bloody menstrual rag.


"Sanitary Napkins for Ladies"

In the 1890s, the first disposable menstrual pads hit the market in the U.S. The disposable pads were created and sold by good old Johnson and Johnson, who initially included their pads in maternity kits sold to obstetricians and midwives. Missing a great opportunity to wow around half the population with a unique product meant to make periods a little easier to handle, Johnson and Johnson gave their pads possibly the worst names ever: Lister's Towel, and Sanitary Napkins for Ladies.

If these product names sound comically euphemized, it's because the company intentionally wanted to avoid any direct mention of periods or menstrual blood, essentially refusing to address the very need the pads were meant to accommodate.

Buckle up for safety

There were many, many iterations of the pad throughout the 20th century, but it feels worth it to mention a very special development in pad engineering: the buckle. Pads in the 1920s were held in place with a belt that's almost reminiscent of a BDSM harness.

Wearing a cloth pad at this time meant donning an elastic belt around the waist, and safety pinning attached elastic straps to the front and back ends of the pad (picture suspenders that go around your waist instead of your shoulders, and hold up a cloth pad instead of your pants). And yes, this pad was pretty enormous. Cloth pads that got belted in extended from above the vaginal opening and under to cover quite a bit of butt crack.


The first tampons weren't tampons

Enter the tampon, the period product that enters you. Tampons are overall a simpler product than pads, and frankly haven't changed all that much since the papyrus days. In the late 1800s, tampons were not an item meant to absorb menstrual blood, but rather were used primarily by doctors to deliver medications into a patient's vagina.

In the late 1800s, tampons were used primarily by doctors to deliver medications into a patient's vagina.

Stuffed condoms and the tampon that could have been

In the early 1920s, around the same time that belted tampons were being marketed, an employee at Kimberly-Clark got an idea for an insertable and disposable option for menstrual blood absorption. It was…. weird. The employee, John Williamson, stuffed a condom full with the contents of a disposable pad, poked holes in the condom, and pitched the "invention" to his father, who also worked at Kimberly-Clark. Williamson's dad poo-pooed the idea, which died then and there.

Will the real tampon please stand up?

In 1931, Tampax received the patent for the first disposable tampon with an applicator. This is more or less the same style of applicator style tampon that's sold today. It was invented by Dr. Earle Cleveland Haas, a general practitioner from Denver, who, according to Tampax, wanted to find a solution for menstrual blood that was more comfortable than the bulky and cumbersome belted pads.

Tampon legend has it that, after hearing from a female friend that she inserted a sea sponge during her time of the month, Haas got it in his head that compressed cotton could serve the same purpose. Later in his basement, Haas sewed together the first modern tampon, and devised paper tubes that would serve to keep the tampon clean before insertion, and also aid with the insertion itself.


These days, there is a small but fiercely loyal group who absolutely love their menstrual cups.

Cup it up

The menstrual cup—an insertable, reusable cup that collects menstrual blood—has also been around since the early 20th century. While it's not clear when exactly the first menstrual cup was invented, the first menstrual cup patented in the U.S. was made out of rubber and designed by Leona Chalmers. Chalmers' patent shows up in 1937, but the cup itself never took off, in part because there was a rubber shortage at the outset of World War II.

Tassette attempted to bring the cup back in the late 1950s, but it just didn't catch on. At this point, it was clear that the battle was over the taboo surrounding periods and menstrual blood; women just didn't want to touch their vulvas and vaginas, making the cup an unattractive option.

These days, there is a small but fiercely loyal group who absolutely love their menstrual cups. The most popular brands are the Diva Cup, Lunette, and The Keeper. The Keeper was put on the market in 1987, making it the oldest of the current top brands.

People who have periods

Slowly, educational information about menstruation is starting to acknowledge trans men, many of whom have periods. Along with the beginnings of trans-inclusive education about gynecological health care have come period products tailored to trans men, who have thus far been completely erased from public education about periods, as well as menstrual product marketing.

In 2015, period panty company THINX launched a line of underwear for "people with periods," acknowledging the fact that more than just one gender (cis women) can have a period. THINX period panties can be thought of as underwear with built-in pads that can be washed and reworn throughout a period. To begin including trans men and nonbinary people in the world of period products, THINX created a boy short style of period panties that have a more androgynous look to them.

Throughout the ages, there have basically been two ways to manage menstrual blood: letting it flow out onto a pad, or keep it contained internally for a short amount of time. Tampons may not be made out of wood anymore, and we don't have to strap in to wear a pad, but it does seem that there's been fewer developments in the world of period products than one might expect. Though with the emergence of trans-inclusivity in the world of menstruation hygiene marketing, perhaps the advancements we need are not so much related to what catches the blood, but how we talk about who bleeds.