“Solving Woman’s Oldest Hygienic Problem in a New Way”: A History of Period Products

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

This is part of an intermittent series of blogs featuring advertisements from medical journals. You can find the entire series here.

For the past few weeks, subway-riding New Yorkers have been surrounded by advertisements for absorbent underwear, the latest in a long history of products designed for use during menstruation.

But what did people use before the era of special undies, tampons, pads, and cups? Very little is known about pre-20th century methods, but historians believe (and oral history interviews confirm) that many relied on homemade cloth or paper pads or diapers pinned to belts and strings. Some women reused these items, while others disposed of them after one use.1,2 Other women—even going back to ancient Rome—fashioned their own tampons from absorbent wool, fibers, paper, sponges, and other materials.3

Things began to change in the mid-1800s. Between 1854 and 1921 (the year the Kotex was first marketed), the U.S. Patent Office granted 185 patents for menstrual (or catamenial) devices.1 In her 1994 doctoral dissertation, Laura Klosterman Kidd breaks these patents into six interconnected categories:

(1) Belts or supporters, from which were suspended (2) a catamenial sack, pouch, shield, menstrual receiver, or napkin-holder, into which was placed (3) an absorbent, consisting of cloths, pads, napkins, sponges, or raw waste fibers. Ancillary categories of menstrual patents were (4) attaching devices used to secure or connect the catamenial sack to the supporter, (5) catamenial garments or appliances that aided in protecting the wearer’s clothing, and (6) vaginally inserted menstrual retentive cups.1

One of these patented products is advertised in the 1884 American Druggist. Despite claims that it is “the grandest invention for the convenience and cleanliness of ladies,” it certainly gives the modern audience pause. A soft rubber cup gets inserted into the vagina, and fluid flows into a “receptacle” attached to a belt. “At night, before retiring, the fluid can and should be removed [from the receptacle], simply by removing a cap, without removing the instrument.”

"Farr's Patent Ladies' Menstrual Receptacle," advertised in American Druggist, January 1884.

“Farr’s Patent Ladies’ Menstrual Receptacle,” advertised in American Druggist, January 1884. Click to enlarge.

There’s a reason these never caught on. But they aren’t such a far cry from today’s (much less cumbersome) menstrual cups.

The real shift in feminine hygiene products came in the 1920s and 1930s. During World War I, nurses at the front lines used absorbent Cellucotton, a Kimberly-Clark product made from wood pulp, both to bandage soldiers (as intended) and to absorb menstrual blood. After the war, Kimberly-Clark developed Cellucotton into Kotex, introducing the product in 1920.4 These napkins were held in place using belts; adhesive napkins only became available in the late 20th century.2

This was not the first commercial sanitary napkin; earlier brands appeared for sale through mail-order catalogs. But it was the first to get a hard-won advertising campaign, which began in 1921. As Lara Freidenfelds relates in her book The Modern Period, advertisements for Kotex appeared in Ladies Home Journal once its editor’s secretary “declared the ads to be in good taste and of great benefit to women.” After Ladies Home Journal agreed to run the ads, other magazines, including the American Medical Association’s Hygeia, followed.2

Below are two early advertisements for Kotex, which appeared in Hygeia in 1924 and are both geared to nurses. We love that the coupon from the September 1924 ad has been clipped and, presumably, mailed in for a free sample.

Kotex ad in Hygeia Magazine, September 1924.

Kotex ad in Hygeia Magazine, September 1924. Click to enlarge.

Kotex ad in Hygeia Magazine, November 1924. Click to enlarge.

Kotex ad in Hygeia Magazine, November 1924. Click to enlarge.

While Hygeia does not appear to have run ads for Kotex prior to 1924, it did advertise an absorbent cotton on the back cover of its volumes in 1923. Bauer & Black Absorbent Cotton touted its many uses in these advertisements, noting that “Women use it to meet personal emergencies.” Even after the advent of commercially available sanitary napkins, some women preferred a more do-it-yourself approach.

Bauer & Black Absorbent Cotton ad in Hygeia Magazine, August 1923. Click to enlarge.

Bauer & Black Absorbent Cotton ad in Hygeia Magazine, August 1923. Click to enlarge.

Kotex wasn’t alone in the marketplace for long: Gauzets and other, often cheaper, brands came along soon after, and also advertised heavily.

Gauzets ads from Hygeia Magazine, published in January and November 1933. Click to enlarge.

Gauzets ads from Hygeia Magazine, published in January and November 1933. Click to enlarge.

The first widespread commercial tampon arrived in the 1930s: Physician Earle Cleveland Haas received a patent for his applicator tampon in 1933, which he named Tampax. He distributed his product beginning in 1936.2,3 Prior to Tampax, tampons had widespread use as medical devices dating as far back as the 18th century.2,3 Soon after the development of Tampax, other commercial tampon brands, like Wix and B-ettes, became available and also advertised widely.

These early ads show the hurdles Tampax had to overcome to win wide acceptance from consumers and doctors. In fact, Tampax spent $100,000 on advertising in its first nine months alone; by 1941, the company was “one of the one hundred largest advertisers in the United States.”2 The ads worked: a 1944 survey showed that one quarter of women in the United States used tampons, even as doctors debated their safety.2,3 These ads, spanning the first 10 years of commercial tampon availability, emphasize the safety, comfort, convenience, and invisibility of the products.

Click on an image to view the gallery:

Despite the worries of physicians, early tampons were safe. In fact, our main concern with tampon use today, Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), was only linked to tampon use about 40 years after their debut. In 1978, Procter & Gamble released Rely, a super-absorbent tampon made from synthetic fibers. This new kind of tampon led to 55 cases of TSS from October 1979 through May 1980. But non-synthetic, less absorbent tampons pose little threat, and the bacteria that causes TSS is present and active in only a small percentage of people.3,5

Other options entered the marketplace in the 1930s: several menstrual cups received patents, including the first commercially available cup in the United States, patented by actress Leona Chalmers as a “catamenial appliance” in 1937.6 This cup’s design looks much the same as those on the market today.

Image from Leona Chalmers' 1937 patent for a "catamenial appliance." Source: https://www.google.com/patents/US2089113

Image from Leona Chalmers’ 1937 patent for a “catamenial appliance.” Source: https://www.google.com/patents/US2089113

In less than 100 years, menstrual supplies have moved from mostly homemade affairs to mass-market items available in stores, from products hidden away at the back of mail-order catalogs to some of the most commonly advertised goods in the United States. The advances of the 1920s and 1930s still impact our lives, as sanitary napkins, tampons, and cups remain go-to products, improved upon over time but not abandoned.

References

1.Kidd LK. Menstrual technology in the United States, 1854 to 1921. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Department of Textiles and Clothing; 1994.

2. Freidenfelds L. The modern period: Menstruation in twentieth-century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2009.

3. Fetters A. The tampon: A history. The Atlantic. June 1, 2015. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/history-of-the-tampon/394334/. Accessed March 1, 2016.

4. World War I centenary: Sanitary products. Available at: http://online.wsj.com/ww1/sanitary-products. Accessed March 1, 2016.

5. Vostral SL. Rely and Toxic Shock Syndrome: a technological health crisis. Yale J Biol Med. 2011;84(4):447–59. Available at: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=3238331&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract. Accessed March 1, 2016.

6. North BB, Oldham MJ. Preclinical, clinical, and over-the-counter postmarketing experience with a new vaginal cup: menstrual collection. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2011;20(2):303–11. doi:10.1089/jwh.2009.1929.

Did Corsets Harm Women’s Health?

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

“It is difficult to imagine a slavery more senseless, cruel, or far-reaching in its injurious consequences than that imposed by fashion on civilized womanhood during the past generation. Her health has been sacrificed, and in countless instances her life has paid the penalty; while posterity has been dwarfed, maimed, and enervated, and in body, mind, and soul deformed at its behests. … [T]he tight lacing required by the wasp waists has produced generations of invalids and bequeathed to posterity suffering that will not vanish for many decades. By it, as has been pointed out by the authorities cited, every vital organ in the body has been seriously affected.”1

The title page of

The title page of “Fashion’s Slaves,” 1892. Click to enlarge.

So writes Benjamin Orange Flower in “Fashion’s Slaves,” a 32-page pamphlet published in 1892 as an appeal for women’s dress reform. One of the many causes Flower takes up is the corset, expressing his concern that the undergarment causes damage to internal organs. He continues, “If women will continue this destructive habit, the race must inevitably deteriorate.”1

Certainly, many women felt fettered by their restrictive clothing or there would never have been a dress reform movement. But just how damaging were corsets?

Not all corsets were alike. Tight lacing—cinching a corset to achieve a very small, or wasp, waist—began in the 1820s and 1830s after the advent of corsets made with metal eyelets. Medical professionals came out strongly against the practice.2 As shown in dramatic X-ray images in Ludovic O’Followell’s Le Corset, tightly laced corsets could change the shape of the rib cage,3 but there is no evidence that women had lower ribs removed to decrease their waists.4

Click on an image to view the gallery from Le Corset.

By measuring 19th-century corsets and dresses, historians have determined that women probably did not cinch their waists below 20 inches.4 (By comparison, today many U.S. stores list their XXS waist size at 23.5 inches.5,6) While many waists were still quite small, they may never have gone to the 14-inch extremes reported in women’s magazines, regardless of what fashion drawings depicted.4

A tightly laced corset could reduce lung capacity, irritate skin, and weaken back and chest muscles used to being supported.2 Whether tight lacing caused long-term health issues, like reduced pelvis size, constipation and digestive issues, and reproductive problems ranging from miscarriage to uterine prolapse, is more difficult to assess and remains unclear.2,4,7

Dr. Warner trade card, inside and out. An 1883 article from Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine hailed Dr. Warner’s Coraline Corset as a model of comfort, superior to whalebone and horn corsets, and endorsed the model as a substitute for tight-laced models: “They have demonstrated that tight lacing is not essential to grace or beauty of form; and while impractical dress reformers have been preaching reforms which no one would adopt, Warner Brothers, by introducing properly fitting corsets, have given practical aid to the health and comfort of several million ladies.”8

Dr. Warner trade card, inside and out. An 1883 article from Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine hailed Dr. Warner’s Coraline Corset as a model of comfort, superior to whalebone and horn corsets, and endorsed the model as a substitute for tight-laced models: “They have demonstrated that tight lacing is not essential to grace or beauty of form; and while impractical dress reformers have been preaching reforms which no one would adopt, Warner Brothers, by introducing properly fitting corsets, have given practical aid to the health and comfort of several million ladies.”8 Click to enlarge.

Many health problems once blamed on the corset are now clearly not the fault of the undergarment. Death caused by postpartum infections, or childbed fever, became relatively rare with the advent and spread of antiseptic techniques. With the discovery of the tubercle bacillus in 1882, it became clear that corsets did not cause the disease. Incidence of breast cancer did not decrease after corsets that did not compress the breasts came into vogue. As Gerhart S. Schwartz wrote in a 1979 Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine article, “one disease after another found an explanation which was unrelated to the corset.”9

Many of the doctors against tight lacing, including O’Followell, did not condemn corsets as a whole. Instead, they championed designs less tightly laced. Several pamphlets in our collection feature what they claim to be medically sound corsets.

In one, “La Grecque Corset as an Aid to the Physician and Surgeon,” printed circa 1911, the van Orden Corset Company advertises corsets that pull in the abdomen while reducing strain on abdominal muscles.10

Incorrect and correct pressure applied by corsets. In

Incorrect and correct pressure applied by corsets. In van Orden Corset Company, “La Grecque Corset as an Aid to the Physician and Surgeon,” circa 1911. Click to enlarge.

The pamphlet also features a maternity corset, “designed for a natural change of figure.”10 Corsets for maternity came on the market in the 1830s, and were often tightly laced.11 Yet the medical literature of the period does not discuss dangers of maternity corsets to the fetus or the mother,11 either due to taboos of the time or because negative impacts were rare or unreported. The maternity corset advertised by the van Orden Corset Company, from the early 1900s, was not tightly laced, taking advantage of new elasticized fabrics to expand as needed.10

La Grecque Maternity Corset. In

La Grecque Maternity Corset. In van Orden Corset Company, “La Grecque Corset as an Aid to the Physician and Surgeon,” circa 1911. Click to enlarge.

Corsets from a Surgical Standpoint,” from H. W. Gossard and Company (still in business today as a lingerie company), describes to physicians the benefits of prescribing their pliable front-laced corsets. These corsets, they claimed, improved posture and “preserve[d] the lines demanded by fashion, but without discomfort or injury.”12

Figures 5 and 6 in

Figures 5 and 6 in H. W. Gossard and Company, “Corsets from a Surgical Standpoint,” 1909. Click to enlarge.

Both of these pamphlets were published at the end of an era. The advent of elasticized fabric paved the way for the creation of an early bra, displayed by Herminie Cadolle at the Exposition Universelle in 1889.13 The corset’s final death knell was World War I. Women could not work in factories or the field while wearing restrictive clothing. Once household staff went to work for the war effort, upper-class women had no one to help them dress. Girdles and bras took over the corset’s supporting role, about 20 years after Flower’s calls for the end of the “destructive habit” of corsetry.1,13

References

1. Flower BO. Fashion’s slaves. Boston: Arena Pub. Co.; 1892.

2. Starr M. Vintage X-rays reveal the hidden effects of corsets. CNET. 2015. Available at: http://www.cnet.com/au/news/vintage-x-rays-reveal-the-hidden-effects-of-corsets. Accessed May 14, 2015.

3. O’Followell L. Le corset; histoire, médecine, hygiène. volume 2. Paris: Maloine; 1908.

4. Davis L. No, corsets did not destroy the health of Victorian women. io9. 2014. Available at: http://io9.com/no-corsets-did-not-destroy-the-health-of-victorian-wom-1545644060. Accessed May 14, 2015.

5. LOFT: Size Chart. Available at: http://www.anntaylor.com/catalog/sizeChartPopup.jsp. Accessed May 18, 2015.

6. Gap – women’s size chart. Available at: http://www.gap.com/browse/sizeChart.do?cid=2081. Accessed May 18, 2015.

7. Klingerman KM. Binding femininity: An examination of the effects of tightlacing on the female pelvis. 2006. Available at: http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-04072006-115441/unrestricted/Klingerman_thesis.pdf. Accessed May 14, 2015.

8. Coraline: Its discovery and use in the manufacture of corsets. Godey’s Lady’s B Mag. 1883:468–469. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=nXA-AQAAMAAJ&pgis=1. Accessed May 18, 2015.

9. Schwarz GS. Society, physicians, and the corset. Bull N Y Acad Med. 1979;55(6):551–90. Available at: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1807654. Accessed May 14, 2015.

10. La Grecque corset as an aid to the physician and surgeon. New York: van Orden Corset Co.; 1911?

11. Summers L. Bound to please: A history of the Victorian corset. Oxford, New York: Berg; 2001.

12. Corsets from a surgical viewpoint. Chicago: Gossard Co.; 1909.

13. Fontanel B. Support and seduction: The history of corsets and bras. New York: Abrams; 1997.

Symbols in a Life of Psychic Tension

Gallery

This gallery contains 5 photos.

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian Forget the articles: Advertisements can be the most interesting part of medical journals from decades past. The ads below, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology between 1940 and 1970, show how … Continue reading