The Evolution of Menstrual Products

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
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.

Menstrual Cups
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?

About Serena:
Serena is a freelance writer who enjoys baking, protesting, and playing with little dogs.


  1. I don’t use a menstrual cup, but I don’t think they are “inserted into the uterus.” To the best of my knowledge, they sit below the cervix, in the vagina. But I use cloth pads from P.I.M.P (Party in My Pants) and love them most of the time. Interesting article, thanks for the historical perspective

  2. I don’t use a menstrual cup, but I don’t think they are “inserted into the uterus.” To the best of my knowledge, they sit below the cervix, in the vagina. But I use cloth pads from P.I.M.P (Party in My Pants) and love them most of the time!

  3. Thanks for catching that – I’m correcting the sentence right now. :)

  4. Here via Feministe…

    Nice write-up. I had the occasion to borrow some maxi pads from my mom when home on a trip. She’d bought them “before the change” in the late 80s. Let’s just say they’ve come a long way since then – no longer do we have to wear things reminiscent of lumpy futons in our underpants.

    • Hi Captain Awkward – I always feel like I’ve got a mattress in my pants when I’m wearing a maxi pad, even the new “ultra thins.” We definitely have come a long way!

  5. I’m a menstrual cup + cloth pad user. The deciding factor for me was cost. I have an inordinately heavy flow, and the long-term cost of disposable products was actually a significant burden on my budget. (Seriously. It’s not fun deciding between tampons for the week or food for the week.)

    It might also be worth mentioning that there are menstrual cup brands — and shapes and sizes — other than the Diva Cup. At last count, there were over a dozen cup companies, though not all cups are available in all areas. Just like some folks have pad and tampon preferences — wings? applicator? regular? ultra? — some folks have cup preferences too. :)

    • Tori, thanks for sharing the link for the different cup brands. Along those lines, there are also more brands for the reusable cloth pads besides Luna Pads. The photo in the article is actually from Lotus Pads.

      I hear you about the cost factor. I’m getting tired of paying for tampons – I’m totally down with cloth pads – I just need to get my shit together and order them. :)

  6. Great post – although thinking about how menstrual products have changed, always makes me think of reading Judy Blume’s “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret” as an impressionable kid. While the belts and hooks needed to keep pads in place kind of freaked me out, I was unaccountably sad when I learned that the book had been updated.

    Anyway, to keep it on topic – I’m a fan of pads, thanks to a few bad tampon experiences. I’m intrigued by the cup, though – a friend has used one for years (not sure of the brand) and swears by it. Knowing that there are websites out there devoted to the intricacies of using the cup is great!

  7. DivaCup Fan says:

    I’ve been using a Diva Cup – the SAME Diva Cup – for nearly four years. I love, love, love it! No leaks, clean, comfortable and the most reliable menstrual product I’ve ever used. This article is the first time I’ve heard the idea of replacing it every year. The natural food store where I bought mine told me (and my experience over 4 years agrees) that replacing it is only necessary if it starts to breakdown, that replacing it may just be a capitalist venture. It is silicone afterall… for those of you with silicone kitchen utensils, you expect them to last, and they do, right?

  8. You are wrong about the cups. They last around 10 years when properly cared for, not 1 year.

  9. I use the depo-provera shot to avoid menstruation. I have always hated having to deal with it and the accompanying annoyances. It works like a dream, and I will continue to use it until no longer needed.

  10. Serena, if you haven’t seen this amazing article about sanitary pads in India, I highly recommend you check it out! It really opened my eyes to problems I had no idea existed.

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