Probably the most prevalent menstrual hygiene product seen in use in recent generations has been the sanitary pad. It is available today in various sizes, fragrances and even for different times of the day, but the sanitary pad underwent evolution over centuries, with numerous failed experiments that ultimately led to its present form. Similarly, the existence of menstrual products other than pads too can be seen, even in the past.
The “Ishango Bone” is many-a-times correlated with being the first tracker for the menstrual cycle. It is questioned to be a ‘basic calendar that may have been used to track the lunar phase in relation to the female menstrual cycle.’ Claudia Zaslavsky, an ethno mathematician in her contribution to the New Mexico State University newsletter on ethnomathematics elaborates upon the same. She builds upon the research done by Dena Taylor in an article of hers entitled “The Power of Menstruation.”
Dena wrote the article keeping in mind her book, Africa Counts Number and Pattern in African Culture. The bone is described as an artefact that found its way into mathematical history books. Discovered in the 1960s on a lakeshore in Zaire, after dating was done on it twice, it was said to be 20,000 to 25,000 years old. It was originally described as a record of prime numbers and doubling, but it was later discovered that it represented a 6-month lunar calendar. Dena figured that no one would need a lunar calendar other than a woman keeping track of her menstrual cycle. This was contested and it was said that agriculturists were the first ones needing such a calendar, but usually, women were agriculturists at that time, while men went hunting.
Another similar bone is the Lebombo bone. It may have been used as an early “tally stick” by the Paleolithic man from the Upper Paleolithic age onwards. Made from wood or animal bones, they too could be used for documenting time-flow, annual cycles, or even for creating some form of calendars. There are other similar bones seen in history that are hypothesized to have had relations with tracking the menstrual cycle.
Nowadays, of course, there is a wide availability of period tracker apps with no need to look at incisions on bones.
4th century AD Hellenistic Greece brought with it Hypatia, a prominent philosopher from Alexandria known for overcoming sexism in her society. She is credited with having thrown a bloody rag at a male admirer to get rid of him. This shows that the usage of rags to collect menstrual blood was prevalent then. “On the rag” is also a term commonly used in lieu of menstruation. Before the disposable pad was invented, most women used rags, cotton, wood pulp or sheep’s wool in their underwear to stop the flow of blood. Even rabbit fur and grass was used.
Sand, filled inside cloth and used as a sanitary pad was a phenomenon seen in China decades ago. In India, sadly the phenomenon of using such materials that may be harmful in the long run is seen even in the present day, due to rampant poverty and lack of awareness regarding the availability of safe, sustainable methods.
Clue, a company behind a popular period and ovulation tracker app discusses the usage of menstrual belts in history. The initial menstrual belt was introduced by Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, a black self-taught inventor, whose patent was denied due to her being black.
Menstrual products were marketed door-to-door during the 1870s, with products like “Ladies Elastic Doily Belt” appearing in catalogues. This was silk and elastic belt to which a pad could be attached. Acting like a girdle, it went around the waist and met at the centre between the legs. The pad would be attached to the loops of the belt. The product was not very useful though, since the pad kept shifting.
Period aprons emerged in the 1850s and were creative at best. The idea of putting a thin layer of rubber between the underpants and the outer garment was an extension to the concept of “bloomers” that were being seen in the 1800s. The term bloomer is derived from a nineteenth-century garment worn by American women’s rights activist Amelia Jenks Bloomer. These bloomers (underwear lined with rubber/rubber pants) were supposed to be self-adjusting, snug and reversible, according to an ad from the time, which also appears in Clue’s menstrual history article. Still, there is a high chance that these were hardly comfortable, after all, it was rubber and blood together.
Nurses were the first ones who thought about using sanitary pads, seeking to stem the flow of blood especially while on the battlefield. These pads were made using wood pulp by French nurses. Soon after, commercial manufacturers adopted the idea to form the first disposable pads in 1888 called the ‘Southball pads.’ Johnson & Johnson in 1896 introduced the ‘Lister’s Towel: Sanitary Towels for Ladies’ along the same lines.
The closest resembling sanitary pads to what can be seen today were Kotex pads, introduced in 1921 in the United States. Kotex means cotton texture (co-tex = Kotex) and were inspired by super-absorbent bandages made with a cotton-acrylic blend which were used for wounded soldiers in World War I. These could also help with tackling menstrual flow. Even so, they were either too expensive for most of the population or the taboo surrounding menstruation did not enable them to be bought easily by women, who had to end up dropping money in jars and collecting the pads from a box without interacting with the mostly-male shopkeepers.
In India too, the practice adopted by shopkeepers of putting sanitary napkins in black bags before handing them over to the customer evidently shows that the taboo has ceased to disappear even today. While we may have evolved in terms of products, the general mentality largely remains unchanged in the country.
As mentioned, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was denied the patent for the sanitary menstrual belt. This was only because of her race. Even when she was trying to make lives simpler for fellow women, her patent got rejected because of her being black.
Kenner was a born inventor and used to come up with ingenious ideas ever since childhood. Children of her age drew aeroplanes and sports cars while Kenner made plans for a convertible roof that would go over the folding rumble seat of a car. Once she saw water dripping off a closed umbrella and onto the door, and came up with a sponge tip that could be added to the end to soak up the rainwater. She even drew up plans for a portable ashtray that would attach itself to a cigarette packet. An inventive spirit was always within her.
After shifting to Washington DC at age 12, she started roaming around the halls of the United States Patent and Trademark Office to find out if someone had beaten her and led a patent for an invention first. Years later, she was extremely excited when she was approached for the menstrual belt patent, but the company representative, after meeting her and realising that she was black, went back to New York (from where the company operated) and told her that they were no longer interested.
Thankfully, this did not deter her spirit. With time, she filed 5 patents, more than any other African-American woman in history.
According to Scroll, the first advertisement of Southball pads was said to be released in 1889 – but it featured in the Times of India as early as 1885. This shows that early forms of pads were probably available in the Indian market too since they were being advertised. Initially distributed to Calcutta, Bombay and Poona retailers and mentioned on the seventh page of the newspaper along with other health-related articles and advertisements, it asserted its role as a “medical product.” At the time, the pad was not being marketed as a necessity but as a source of comfort and hygiene.
Before 1947, such ads were mainly for the European and Anglo-Indian population. By 1954, an Indian Kotex advertisement sought to create an association with the Indian “modern women” too. Ads were not just seen for Southball or Kotex. Sanitary napkins were also produced by the organised sector in India, but their advertisements are found in Times of India from the third quarter of the 20th century. Examples would be Gandhar Enterprises (from Allahabad in 1975), Softouch (Ahmedabad, 1981) and Carewell (Chandigarh, 1992).
The napkins were accompanied with belts which implies that they would particularly be suited to women wearing petticoats and salwars. The introduction of adhesives to napkins by the 1990s also indicated changes in the use of underwear, supplemented by a 60% growth rate. With the coming of liberalisation, the sanitary pad consumer base started growing like never before, with new brands like Whisper, Stayfree and more. Still, there was a need to spread awareness and expand the consumer base beyond the usual buyers. Therefore, aggressive campaigning came to the forefront. Schools, doctors’ chambers, free samples, door-to-door selling and home-delivery helplines were used to promote and cut across societal distinctions.
Nonetheless, sanitary napkins and other menstrual products are still out of reach for the larger Indian population to date.