A non-boring history lesson about periods

Cramps, clots and moods: we’re living in an era where people are more vocal and open about periods both among our friendship groups and in popular culture. We discuss the merits of a menstrual cup vs tampons, swap cramp cures and are just generally more comfortable chatting about that time of the month. This shift in how we talk about and manage our periods is amazing, but what about how they were dealt with in the past? How did people treat cramps in medieval times? What did people use before tampons?

Ancient attitudes

The root of the word ‘menstruation’ comes from the Latin word ‘mensis’ which means month. The word ‘moon’ also originates from this Latin root. Using the word ‘period’ is actually relatively modern, although it was in use from the early 15th century, it wasn’t used in the context we know it until the 1820s.

There was a major taboo around periods in ancient civilisations, and this means that there isn’t a lot of recorded information about what people used to deal with periods thousands of years ago. What we do know for sure is that both Ancient Greeks and Romans used makeshift ‘menstrual cloths’, a very basic version of the sanitary towels of today. A lot of these historical records were also written by men, so there’s not a lot of first-person accounts from people who actually had periods.

The medical knowledge we have today about periods means that a lot of the mystery that was there before has been debunked. Ancient civilisations were far more superstitious about periods and what they ‘really meant’.

The Ancient Greeks believed that if you didn’t get your period after the age of 14 the excess blood would cause a condition called ‘hysteria’, the main symptoms of which were headaches, depressive episodes and (gasp) swearing. Strips of linen were used and washed by Ancient Egyptians, who viewed the period as a time of ‘cleansing’. Ancient Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder was pretty outlandish in his claims about menstrual blood. Calm down, mate:

“turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens dry up, the fruit falls off tress, steel edges blunt and the gleam of ivory is dulled, bees die in their hives, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”

Medieval menstruation and beyond

Hygiene standards in the Middle Ages were less than perfect. In the era of the bubonic plague and open sewers, it can’t have been easy around the time of the month. Super-absorbent bog moss was used to stuff homemade menstrual pads, and petticoats were often red to disguise bleeding. Historians Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety wrote a book all about the subject and found that few medieval women actually got regular periods because of poor nutrition, and often menopause began earlier in light of the short life expectancy in general. Religious beliefs at this time also meant that periods were still seen as unclean and something not to be discussed.

The beliefs about periods varied from culture to culture. When Europe colonised America, they found that the indigenous Cherokee tribe avoided women during their periods, and the women stayed in special houses for the few days a month. Christian Europeans wrongly believed this was a result of the tribe thinking the women were unclean, when it was actually a case of them believing menstruating women were extremely powerful.

The hysterical Victorians

The Victorian era was extremely conservative and uptight, and any discussion of periods or female sexuality was usually silenced. People were more generally aware of having good hygiene standards, so tampons, if used at all, were made with linen and even had the string they come with today. A girdle-like contraption called a ‘sanitary apron’ was also used during this time. The idea of female hysteria from the Ancient Greeks became something Victorian doctors wrote about a lot, with symptoms like headaches, mood swings and even homicidal mania. These ideas would eventually evolve into what became known as PMS (pre-menstrual tension).

The first period products

The first disposable pads were called Lister’s Towels and were made by Johnson & Johnson from 1888. During World War One, nurses noticed that wood pulp bandages made excellent makeshift pads. Cellucotton were big suppliers of these bandages and in a stroke of genius decided to market them as Kotex. The first commercial tampons were invented a few years later in 1929 by Dr. Earle Haas. He later sold the patent to Gertrude Tendrich who made each tampon by hand with a sewing machine and air compressor. Her company is now known as Tampax.

The first pads with an adhesive strip were made in 1969 by Stayfree, which was just one of many design changes that made life easier for millions of people.

The first menstrual cup was patented all the way back in 1932. It was made of rubber, not like the modern silicone variety and wasn’t a commercial success, as people were still a little squeamish at the idea. The popularity of reusable cups has now skyrocketed, as a way to save money and also avoid creating waste.

Still a way to go

The stigma around periods is lifting, with companies finally realising that ads depicting a blue liquid being poured onto a pad just aren’t going to cut it anymore. Approaching periods in a realistic way means more of us are talking about them. We’re ending the shame, piece by piece, conversation by conversation.

Although many of us are lucky enough to be able to afford period products, there are many others who are not as fortunate. People who are made homeless or living in poverty don’t have access to the comfort and security of pads or cups, but there are ways you can help. Dignity Period are an organisation that provide pads and education to improve the lives of women and girls in Ethiopia. Closer to home, food banks accept donations for those they help, and your donation can really make a difference.

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