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Journey Through The Periods – A look At The History Of Menstrual Products

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

The monthly affirmation of female reproductive ability got its name ‘Periods’ in the 1820s.

Until then, the taboo surrounding menstruation was strong and very much factually incorrect, it was an inconvenience at best, and a danger at worst. Period products were ‘natural’ and frugal, like rags (5th -15th Century), soft papyrus, sea sponges, moss, buffalo skin etc. (before the 5th Century)

In the 1850s, menstruators started shunning rags and using more layers (of cotton or flannel), to absorb the blood, leading to the roll-out of the ‘Sanitary Apron’ – a rubber strip that ran between the legs and prevented the blood from spreading to the dress or seats.

period pad
A Victorian Era feminine hygiene product- the ‘Sanitary Apron’.

This served as a predecessor for Menstrual Belts.

Menstrual Belts, The Beginning Of Period Products

Menstrual belts, essentially, cloth belts onto which absorbent fabric can be pinned, was commercialized and launched as ‘Lister’s Towels’. The explicit name, coupled with strong taboos at the time, meant that it failed in the market and went out of business. 

period
Menstrual Belts- the beginning of period products.

The Ironical Invention of The Modern Sanitary Pad

The credit to the design of the modern disposable sanitary pad goes to the nurses who served in WW1. While seeking out methods to absorb excessive bleeding, they observed that cellulose did a better job of absorption than the traditional cotton.  The earliest disposable pads had a fibrous rectangle covered with an absorbent layer, with ends to fit in the loops of the girdle worn beneath the dress. The drawback of this design was that the hooks were loose and slipped easily, hence leading to leaking. 

Sanitary pads were commercialized in 1888, as ‘Southball Pads’. Kotex launched cellulose pads, but they were not self-adhesive. Johnson and Johnson later rebranded Lister’s towels as ‘Nupak’, earning quite a market for menstrual belts and pads, with discreet packaging, thus making it presentable to the public.

In 1969, Stayfree launched a first-ever self-adhesive pad, which stuck to the saddle of the underwear. The innovation to this model, like introduction of wings, more absorbent materials, scented pads etc. form pads available in the market today.

period
The predecessor of the modern sanitary napkin.

How A Tampon Brand Broke The Silence Around The Word “Period”

Tampons also were invented in the same time frame, in 1931, by Earl Haas, with greater absorption and applicator, so that it is convenient for use. His inspiration came from a female friend, who used a sponge to absorb her period blood. 

Gertrude Tendrich, a businesswoman, later bought Haas’s patent and launched Tampax, whose commercial became the first to use the word ‘Period’ on television.

Pads and tampons have recently begun to draw flak for the addition to pollution and use of substandard products. Menstrual cups, once shunned, are now back in vogue as the sustainable period product, along with organic pads. The low availability and popularity of organic pads make menstrual cups, the most favoured alternative for those looking to make ‘the switch’ to sustainable and eco-friendly periods.

Menstrual cups, tampons and cotton pads- the modern menstrual hygiene products.

Menstrual Cups: The Current Rage Around A Range of Eco-Friendly Period Products

The first menstrual cup was patented on June 24, 1884, by Hiram Farr. Basically menstrual cups are not a new phenomenon like most of us supposed it to be. The first design of the cup looks nothing like its present form – it had components that went inside and outside the body. The component inside collected the blood while unscrewing the cap on the outside let out all the collected blood.

In the 1930s, Leona Chalmers, an American Actress, modified the menstrual cup, making it closest in design to its modern version. She patented her design of the cup, made of latex rubber, that fits in the vaginal canal and collects the blood, rather than absorbing it. Her product was patented on the grounds that they “didn’t cause discomfort or consciousness of presence”.

Efforts to commercialize the cup weren’t successful, as they were durable and didn’t cause an immediate demand again after purchase. This meant that while most menstruators were sceptical of using it, the ones who did not want another one for a long time. This led to innovations like ‘Disposable cups’, by Tassette Inc., but these never took off in the market.

In the 21st century, cups have regained popularity as the environment-friendly and sustainable period product. A major innovation was in the form of production of cups made from Medical-grade Silicone, to accommodate menstruators with latex allergies. 

Period innovation still has periods to go forth. The goal of reducing period poverty is also as important as tackling the problem of the non-sustainable period. Accessibility and affordability to modern period products are important to ensure a positive period to menstruators.

The author Devika J is an active member of DU Bleeds Team.

To make Delhi University Menstrual Friendly support our petition  https://bit.ly/37uQrlx

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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