The sanitary pad is far and away the most widely used method of menstrual management. It is easy to use, easily accessible, and pretty straightforward. The pads we use today are made up of mostly synthetic, bleached material, but what were they like fifty years ago? And when were they invented?
Menstrual pads have been mentioned in history as early as the 10th century in Ancient Greece, where a woman is said to have thrown one of her used menstrual rags at an admirer in an attempt to get rid of him.
Before the disposable pad was invented, most women used rags, cotton, or sheep’s wool in their underwear to stem the flow of menstrual blood. Knitted pads, rabbit fur, even grass were all used by women to handle their periods.
The very first disposable pads were thought up by nurses, looking for new methods to stop excessive bleeding, particularly on the battlefield. The first pads were made from wood pulp bandages by nurses in France. It was very absorbent, and cheap enough to throw away afterwards. Commercial manufacturers borrowed this idea and the first disposable pads were available for purchase came as early as 1888 – called the Southball pad. In America, Johnson & Johnson developed their own version in 1896 called Lister’s Towel: Sanitary Towel’s for Ladies.
The problem was, women did not feel comfortable asking for this product, so in the early 1920s, the name was changed to Nupak, a name that did not describe the product.
Even though sanitary pads were available during this time, they were much too expensive for most women, and they continued using more traditional methods. When they could be afforded, women were allowed to place money in a box so that they would not have to speak to the clerk and take a box of Kotex pads from the counter themselves. It took several years for disposable menstrual pads to become commonplace.
The earliest disposable pads were generally in the form of a cotton wool or similar fibrous rectangle covered with an absorbent liner. The liner ends were extended front and back so as to fit through loops in a special girdle or belt worn beneath undergarments. This design was notorious for slipping either forward or back of the intended position.
Later, an adhesive strip was placed on the bottom of the pad for attachment to the saddle of the panties, and this became a favoured method with women. The belted sanitary napkin quickly disappeared during the early 1980s, thank goodness.
Sanitary pads are the most widely used form of menstrual management, but they are still overpriced, particularly in developing countries.