Have you ever wondered about the origin of the phrase, “on the rag?” I know I have. Many of us conjure up images of women in the “olden days” using clumps of rags to absorb their menstrual blood. But is this version of women’s history accurate? After doing a little Google digging, come to find out . . . it is.
Menstrual pads have been around as long as women have been having periods, although their form has changed drastically over the centuries. We can’t accurately say what women were using in ancient history, since men wrote the history records and they didn’t really give a damn about what women were doing, let alone what women were using during their lady time.
Historically, pads have been made from silk, cotton, wool, animal skins, and even wood pulp. Pads eventually evolved from just being loosely placed on pantaloons to being secured with belts or string. Disposable pads were introduced around the 1920′s, replacing the reusable cloth pads in the name of convenience. But adhesive tape wasn’t added to the bottom of the menstrual pad until the mid-1980′s. Today we have wings, ultra-thins, and many other styles of disposable pads available on the market.
Disposable pads are the most popular menstrual product in the world, but reusable cloth pads are starting to make a comeback. This is partly due to concern about the environmental impact of disposable pads. (Here’s an interesting thread about the benefits of greening your period from the Luna Pads Blog. The best discussion points are in the comments section.)
Although women can (and do) make their own reusable menstrual pads, many of us don’t know how to turn on a sewing machine, assuming that we even own one. If you’re not the DIY type but you’re ready to hop on the hippie bandwagon, Luna Pads sells washable menstrual pads, with several snazzy fabric patterns to choose from.
I was surprised to discover that tampon have been around for thousands of years. According to Natural Menstrual Products:
Sponges and cotton wadding were used as tampons in Europe in the 17th century . . . The ancient Egyptian women made tampons from softened papyrus. In other countries early tampons were made of lint wrapped around lightweight wood, wool, vegetable plant fibres and in Equatorial Africa women used rolls of grass.
The earliest commercial tampons were available in the early 1900s. Whereas pads have undergone quite a lot of transformation over time from bulky reusable rags to disposable cotton worn attached to a belt, from bulky rectangular sponge-like things to ultra-thins with wings and adhesive backing, tampons have always been either sponges or wads of cotton or rayon fibres, usually attached to a cord.
Tampons have gotten a bad reputation over the past few decades for a few reasons. The first allegation is that the bleach used to make the cotton white can cause cancer. Another fear is that tampons also pose a risk for Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) if the tampons are left in the vagina too long, because bacteria can build up on the tampon. The Federal Drug Administration has investigated both of these concerns; it has not found any evidence to support these claims. Tampons remain a very popular choice, and new versions are released on a regular basis.
It might surprise you, but menstrual cups have been around for over 150 years. The Diva Cup company says that the idea of reusable menstrual cups started in the 1930s (most likely as a way to reduce expenses during The Depression), but there are records of women in India using rubber cups to collect menstrual blood in the late 1800s. Rubber proved to be a challenge, since many women have allergies to rubber, so menstrual cups are now made out of silicone to prevent allergic reactions.
Menstrual cups are inserted into the vagina, and they collect blood throughout the day. The cups can be emptied, rinsed, and reinserted into the vagina. Diva Cups cost approximately $40, and they last about a year when they are cared for properly. Compare that to the $100+ women spend every year on tampons. Many women cite a “gross out” factor as a reason not to switch over to menstrual cups, which makes reusable pads a viable option.
The Wrap Up
The evolution of menstrual products is interesting to me because it shows that we women have used a lot of ingenuity over the years to accommodate our menstrual cycles. When I think about how my own relationship to my cycle has changed over time, I can realize that many factors have changed, including: awareness of my body; product preference; awareness of how my own habits impact the planet.
What’s your menstrual story? And what’s your menstrual product of choice? If you’ve made the switch to eco-friendly period accoutrements, what was the deciding factor, and what has your experience been like?
Serena is a freelance writer who enjoys baking, protesting, and playing with little dogs.