A History of Menstruation: 5 Interesting Facts

Written by Fee Bassett

How have we been managing periods throughout history? Step into the TOTM time tunnel for a history of menstruation.

In these modern times, there’s been a notable change in how we manage our periods. There are more choices for a start including organic tampons and even period pants! You can also get tampons online delivered in time for your period (not mentioning any brands…).

Attitudes towards periods are also starting to change. This is thanks to platforms such as social media. I’m not saying we are anywhere near where we should be. There’s a long way to go to break the taboo and bring menstrual equality. But we are starting to see a gradual change. Change that will hopefully sweep through all countries around the world.

I do believe that we can only appreciate where we are going when we can see how far we’ve come. With this mind, I’ve decided to throw it way back to the early days of menstruation.

Not a boring history lesson

After doing some research I felt overwhelmed with information and facts. If I compiled it all into a blog, it would have been a long read. One of those posts that would require at least 4 matcha teas to finish. So, I’ve pulled out what I consider to be the most interesting facts. Here’s what I discovered about the history of menstruation:

Ancient tampons

When it comes to menstruation in ancient times, there are significant gaps. This is due to lack of documents. We have pieces of information and quite a few theories. One of these theories being that in ancient times women did use a form of tampon!

It’s nothing like what we have in 2017 though. Theories suggest that ancient Egyptians used a ‘tampon’ made of papyrus fibres. It’s also suggested that Ancient Greeks used a wood wrapped in lint! These are theories but it gives you an idea of the inventive methods used to control menstrual flow.

Cramps in the medieval times

I should have changed medieval to ‘medevil’. Which would have been a deliberate typo, to sum up how they managed cramps during this time. As someone who suffers quite bad cramps, I squirmed reading up about this topic.

The religious shame during medieval times gave periods a bad name. There was a view that cramps were ‘a reminder of Eve’s original sin.’ This reminder was not to be ignored. The church therefore did not make any pain relief readily available. Admittedly pain relief in the medieval times was not what it is today. There would have been herbal and natural aids to ease pain or symptoms. These were not offered up to menstruating women. Which sounds like punishment to me!

When researching this era, I did discover an interesting medieval remedy for heavy menstruation. There was a common belief that toads and frogs could cure several ailments. From a toothache to heavy menstruation. To cure a heavy flow, women would either boil the toad and wear the ashes near the vagina. Another option would be to take powdered toad medicine. This remedy remains locked away in history. Where it belongs…

Menstruation myths

When digging through the archives of menstruation, one thing is very clear. Throughout history, there have been many bizarre myths surrounding periods.  I could write a whole blog discussing these myths. Over the years, menstrual blood and menstruation have had many labels. It’s referenced in history as both a cure and a curse.

In Ancient Egypt, menstrual blood was a cure for sagging breast and thighs! People would smear blood to ‘fix’ these areas of the body. Definitely, don’t try that one at home! The curing power of menstrual blood also carried through to medieval Europe. They believed menstrual blood could cure leprosy.

Throughout history, people have also considered menstrual blood to be a curse. In Roman times, there was a belief that it had the power to destroy crops and sour wine. These myths are linked with Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist. He also claimed periods could control the weather.

The start of an industry

The feminine hygiene industry as we know it started around WW1. Solider bandages made from Cellucotton were used by Nurses when in the field. They found the material highly absorbent. Cue the launch of sanitary napkins which replaced reusable pads!

Tampons arrived on the scene in the 1930’s. Side note, menstrual cups also made an appearance in the 1930s. Whilst the modern day sanitary pad is miles away from the first ‘sanitary napkin’, the commercial tampon hasn’t significantly evolved. There have been noticeable developments over the years. Read on for the one that I found most shocking!

‘The worst tampon in history’

Approaching the end of the 70s/80s a controversial product launched. It has been labelled the ‘worst tampon in history’ for a reason. Launching in 1974 Rely launched as a super absorbent tampon. It was made with synthetic materials including a cellulose gum called carboxymethyl cellulose.

The Rely tampon became linked to TSS concerns. The number of TSS cases alerted the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).  Doctors discovered high absorbency and synthetic materials had a strong link to TSS. Following a wave of controversy, Rely disappeared from supermarkets in 1980. Apparently, the Rely tampon was so absorbent it ‘ripped the internal walls of vaginal skin when pulled out’ – Yikes!

And that concludes my whistle-stop tour of the history of menstruation! Did you learn anything new? Leave us a comment below or tweet us @totmorganic.

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