History of Pads: From Sand Bags and Wood Pulp to Sanitary Napkins
From menstrual belts to aprons to pads as we know them today - menstruation products have come a long way from what they used to be.
From menstrual belts to aprons to pads as we know them today - menstruation products have come a long way from what they used to be.(Photo: Erum Gour/FIT)

History of Pads: From Sand Bags and Wood Pulp to Sanitary Napkins

Fellow females, next time your period comes knocking, and you reach out for a sanitary pad, remember things were not always as simple. Our ancestors had a much harder time dealing with their ‘that time of the month’. From wood pulp, to sand to pieces of wool – the sanitary pad has gone through several stages of evolution before it became the familiar piece of sanitised textile.

Here’s a quick look at the history of sanitary pads.

When Women Were ‘On The Rag’

Usage of rags and pieces of cloth as pad by women dates back to ancient times. That’s also why the phrase being “on the rag” is used as a euphemism for menstruation.

One of the first few documented evidence of the usage of the rags during menstruation goes back to Ancient Greece.
One of the first few documented evidence of the usage of the rags during menstruation goes back to Ancient Greece.
(Photo: Erum Gour/FIT)

One of the first few documented evidence of the usage of rags during menstruation goes back to Hellenistic Greece. In the 4th century AD, a prominent Greek thinker Hypatia is credited with having thrown a used, bloodied rag at a male admirer to dissuade him.

When Papyrus Was Used Instead of STs

Once upon a time in China, several decades ago, women used sand-filled cloth as a sanitary pad. When the pad was wet, they would get rid of the sand and wash the cloth for future use during their period.

Papyrus was used in Ancient Egypt after soaking in water.
Papyrus was used in Ancient Egypt after soaking in water.
(Photo: Erum Gour/FIT)

Unfortunately, in India, where hardly 12 percent women use sanitary pads (according to a 2011 survey by AC Nielsen), the practice of using unsafe materials like sand and leaves is still in existence. According to a report in The Times of India, women in a village in Amritsar use sand filled socks as pads, often leading to infections and other medical problems.

Another material that figured in menstruation-related practices of yesteryears is papyrus. It was used in Ancient Egypt after soaking in water.

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Period/Sanitary Aprons

People began experimenting with different kinds of menstrual products commercially as early as the 1850s. They came up with the ingenious (not) idea of a period apron. The idea was to put a thin layer of rubber between the underpants and the outer garment.

People began experimenting with different kind of menstrual products commercially as early as the 1850s.
People began experimenting with different kind of menstrual products commercially as early as the 1850s.
(Photo: Erum Gour/FIT)

This was a progression from cotton and flannel being pinned in the bloomers in the 1800s.

It’s hard to imagine how wearing a sheet of rubber, especially when you are already wet and bleeding, could have been comfortable and not stink-ridden.

Did Someone Say Menstrual Belt?

Yes, but thankfully a century ago. Menstrual belts, as the name suggests, were like girdles that would go around the waist and meet at the centre between the legs where the pad would be attached to the loops of the belt.

 Menstrual belts were like girdles that would go around the waist and meet at the centre between the legs.
Menstrual belts were like girdles that would go around the waist and meet at the centre between the legs.
(Photo: Erum Gour/FIT)

The problem with this method was the shifting of the pad. Later adhesive strips were introduced that kept the pad in place. The belts remained in use globally until the end of the 20th century and their sudden disappearance was for good.

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Sanitary Pads... As We Know Them Today

The first echoes of sanitary pads could be heard in all of these products. Attempts at commercialising them were also made in 1888 with a product called the Southall pad. Similarly, Johnson & Johnson also developed something called Lister’s Towel: Sanitary Towels for Ladies in the 1890s. However, they made their way to India a little later than its western counterparts.

The first echoes of sanitary pads could be heard in all of these products.
The first echoes of sanitary pads could be heard in all of these products.
(Photo: Erum Gour/FIT)

The closest prototype to contemporary sanitary pads came in 1921 when Kotex pads entered the US markets. This also became the first commercially available, disposable pad in mainstream, popular history. It owes its origin to the First World War when nurses realised that the super-absorbent bandages with a cotton-acrylic blend used for wounded soldiers, can also help them tackle their menstrual flow. The same material was later introduced as Kotex, named after its ‘cotton-texture’ or ‘cot-tex’.

For the longest time, the retailing of the pads was confined to upper-class women, as others couldn’t afford them. Additionally, due to the taboo around periods, there were jars in which women could drop the money, and collect the pads from a box without interacting with mostly-male shopkeepers. This was how things were in the US in the early 20th century.

Tell us if you feel any parallels between this and a contemporary Indian reality where there is still hesitation in broaching the topic of periods with male family members? Or when a chemist inconspicuously pulls out a black plastic bag for a packet of sanitary napkins?

Do you have a period story to share? Write to us at fit@thequint.com.

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