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What Women Put in Their Vaginas: A Historical Guide

Long before the invention of the tampons and disposable pads that we know and love, women were faced with managing their flows, sans convenience. In Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome, women were fashioning pads out of practically anything they could find. Softened papyrus, moss, wool, animal skins, and grass were all up for grabs. Even in the not-so-ancient 1700s, women were using old rags, sheepskin, and cheesecloth to absorb their flow. Vaguely effective? Sure. Efficient? Convenient? Not really.

The women who came before us experienced their periods in a completely different way than we do. We’re modern women who expect and demand a convenient, even pleasant, period experience. We are no longer interested in gathering scraps from around the farm to manage our menses.

The evolution of period products—from homemade sanitary pads to disposable ones, from no tampons to hundreds of brands, sizes, and scents to choose from—has allowed us the conveniences of being alive in the first world today. But how did one thing lead to another? When did homemade products give way to the billion-dollar industry of period care that exists now? And in what ways are we still growing and evolving? Here’s the lowdown of what women have been putting in their vaginas for the last three centuries, and what’s next.

In 1896, the First Commercial Sanitary Pad

For centuries, women had been making their own pads out of whatever was available to them. It was the norm, much like buying pads and tampons are now. So imagine the collective gasp when Johnson & Johnson produced the first-ever disposable sanitary pad. Called Lister’s Towels, after Joseph Lister, a pioneer in sterile surgery, these commercial pads were made with gauze-covered cotton.

You might think it would be a relief to women who had previously been stuffing their underwear with sheepskin, but most didn’t know about the product due to advertising laws that forbid the mention of menstruation, for “morality” reasons. And the women who did hear about this revolutionary new sanitary pad? Well, they were not about to march into a store and ask for them, lest people know they were menstruating. The product failed and production was stopped. Period-shaming goes back a long time.

Pads and Tampons Hits Shelves in the 1920s

By the early 1900s, many women had ditched their old rags in favor of pinning folded fabric with a cotton stuffing to their undergarments. But during World War I, nurses discovered that there was a better option of managing their period—cellulose bandages. When they used them to treat wounded soldiers, they realized that they absorbed blood far better than their homemade sanitary pads did. In 1920, Curads by Kotex were released. Curads weren’t like the pads we know today, though. With no adhesive backing, they required the use of a reusable sanitary belt to stay in place.

Women in the 1920s were experiencing a type of feminist progression never seen before: The desire for social equality. They no longer wanted to stay home while their men went out for a drink. Instead, they demanded the right to enjoy the same social pleasures—drinking, sex, and urban nightlife. Still, when it came to menstruation, women were less-than-thrilled to ask for the new Kotex pads at a store. When the company realized that this was a problem, they encouraged retailers to keep a money box next to the Curads display, eliminating the need for a woman to ask for the product and divulge that she was, in fact, menstruating. It worked, and by this time, there were hundreds of sanitary-pad brands vying for a piece of the market. It wasn’t until 1927 that Kotex had its first major competitor, Modess by Johnson & Johnson.

Several years later, in 1929, the first tampon was invented by Dr. Earle Haas. He came up with the idea when he spoke with a friend who said she had found a way to avoid the bulkiness and discomfort of menstrual pads by inserting a piece of sponge—similar to sea sponges today—into her vagina to absorb the blood. By 1936, Haas had received his patent, and the now-familiar tampon brand, Tampax, made it’s debut.

The Menstrual Cup is Invented

By the 1930s, many women had gotten used to the idea of disposable period products. They were far more convenient and far less bulky than the previously used homemade pads they’d been using. They were accustomed to a new way of managing their periods so, when Leona Chalmers invented and sent to market the first menstrual cup, there was a not-so enthusiastic response.

The bell-shaped cup made out of vulcanized rubber was made to fit inside of the vagina and collect menstrual blood to be emptied out later. This wasn’t the first product of its kind invented, but it was the first to be patented and marketed. The resistance to the menstrual cup, which for a lot of women felt like a step backward, combined with the shortage of rubber during World War II, forced Chalmer’s to take the cup off the market.

Menstrual cups weren’t dead yet, though. Chalmer revived her version after the war, rebranded it under the name “Tassette,” and with a large marketing budget, set out to educate American women about the benefits of using a menstrual cup. Despite this big push in the 1950s, women still weren’t buying. Various menstrual cup brands popped up over the next 70 years, but despite its growing popularity today, the cup still hasn’t gained the same popularity as pads and tampons.

Tampons and Pads Get a Makeover

It’s now 1950 and the options women have for what they put in and on their vaginas has grown. They can choose between homemade pads (not very popular, due to the rise in more convenient products), disposable pads complete with a not-so-stylish sanitary belt, and applicator tampons. But the evolution of menstrual care products didn’t stop there.

A tampon brand, Pursette, developed a tampon with a lubricated tip, but no applicator, and marketed it in a way that had never been done before—to teenage girls. They offered a trendy black tampon case (for sale separately) and made menstruation a fashion statement.

In 1966, Kotex began to sell individually wrapped pads. This helped the pads stay cleaner before use and made them easier to travel with. Things got even more convenient when Stayfree Mini Pads hit the market. These smaller pads had adhesive strips on the back, which meant that millions of women could ditch the belts and pins that less-modern period products required.

The 1970s brought adhesive backings to all pads and the introduction of the first super-absorbent tampon. These were popular until the 1980s, when it was discovered that these ultra-absorbent tampons were to blame for many cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome. The result? Stricter regulation of women’s hygiene products, something that was needed then—and still needed today.

Contemporary Period Products: The Lowdown

The development of more convenient products like disposable pads, tampons, and menstrual cups helped give millions of women more freedom during their periods. But with this focus on convenience came a decline in the integrity of the products.

Pads and tampons are known to contain chemicals like dioxin, chlorine, polypropylene, and rayon, to name a few. These ingredients aren’t innocent. In fact, they have been linked to serious health problems like hormone disruption, birth defects, infertility, and even cancer. Oh, and let’s not forget that these products have been directly linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome.

What’s even more frightening is that tampon brands aren’t required by the FDA to be transparent about what they put in their products. So not only are they full of potentially harmful chemicals, they don’t even give us a heads-up about it so we can make an informed choice about what we are putting in and on our bodies’ most absorbent area—our vaginas.

These chemicals don’t just affect our immediate health, either. The chemicals present in traditional pads and tampons are released into the environment as they sit in landfills for hundreds of years. Our health, our children’s health, and their children’s health are all being potentially compromised by the use of chemicals in pads and tampons.

Additionally, most pads and tampons are made with conventional cotton that is laden with pesticides and herbicides. In fact, 17 million pounds of pesticide was used to treat California’s cotton fields... in one year. It’s a way of protecting the crops, sure, but at what cost to our health? There can—and should— be a balance between the sustainability of the brands creating tampons and pads and the health effects of those who use them.

Are we glad that menstrual care products have progressed? Absolutely. The fact that we have more freedom during our periods is invaluable and crucial as we take feminism to the next level. It’s imperative that women have choices for managing their periods, particularly ones that don’t involve clipping their pad to a reusable belt or stuffing sheepskin in their underwear.

But not all choices are created equally, lady.

Hello, Modern Menstruation

Buying pads and tampons that are made with chemicals is a choice that many women make, mostly because they don’t know that there are other options. Options that give them the freedom to menstruate without having to sit out a soccer game, stay home from school or work, or use inconvenient reusable products.

We’ve reached a point in time where we are more aware than ever of what goes on—and in—our bodies, along with all of the options available to us. We reach for organic carrots and non-GMO milk. We reject beauty products that contain chemicals we can’t pronounce. We purchase electric cars that don’t emit toxic exhaust into the air. We choose the options that promote and benefit our health. Our decision-making process about purchasing period products should be no different. 

Organic pads and tampons are the alternative choices. We no longer have to either buy reusable pads or deal with the harsh chemicals in disposable tampons. We have an option that is not only healthier for our bodies, but the environment, too. Because they don’t contain the health-damaging chemicals, toxic ingredients, and environmental pollutants that traditional menstrual care products do and because they are made with organic cotton (instead of pesticide-laden conventional cotton), organic tampons are the obvious choice.

We are conscious consumers who demand and deserve to know what is in the products we buy—and how the ingredients affect our health and well-being.

We’ve gotten convenience down over the last three centuries. Now it’s time to shift our focus to choosing healthier, more sustainable period products. It’s why we started Cora—to give you another, better for you choice, all wrapped up and delivered right to your door.

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