by Rachel Dworkin, archivist
May 28th is World Menstrual Hygiene Day. We’re a little late, but rest assured we’re not pregnant. The awareness day was created in 2014 to educate people around the world and help get them with the necessary supplies to stay clean and healthy.
Personally, I can remember my third grade health teacher waxing poetic about the wonders of self-adhesive sanitary pads and tampons, especially in contrast to the nightmarish devices she’d had to wear as a girl. Historically though, menstruation has been considered a taboo subject across many cultures. In her 1882 book, Talks to My Patients, local physician Dr. Rachel Gleason, noted that many of her patients had been entirely ignorant of menstruation when it first happened to them. Several had felt frightened or ashamed, and some ended up endangering their health in an attempt to stop or conceal it. “Mothers,” she wrote, “often intend to give the desired information when needed, but never before, and consequently fail to be in season; for children, in more ways than one, advance faster than they anticipate.” While most American girls learn about their periods in health class like I did, a lot of people, especially in the developing world, have as little clue about periods as Rachel Gleason’s patients in the 1880s.
Here’s how it works. Approximately every 28 days, the ovaries release an egg and the walls of the uterus thicken in anticipation of its fertilization. If it is not fertilized with 24 hours of its release, the egg dissolves and the uterus sheds it’s lining via menstruation. Bleeding can last anywhere from three to seven days. Some related symptoms include stomach cramps, back pain, diarrhea, and bloating. The entire menstrual cycle is controlled by the release of various hormones and it can be effected by things including diet, weight, overall health, and medication. Most girls get their first period between the ages of 12 and 15 and keep having them until they hit menopause between the ages of 45 and 55. According to Dr. Gleason, “warm climates, stimulating drinks, social excitement early in life, and much reading of highly-colored fiction (commonly called “loved stories”),” could bring on early menstruation. Today we know better; it’s almost all down to genetics and sufficient childhood nutrition.
These days, most Americans have access to a number of products designed to help them manage their periods. You might have seen ads for some on TV. Information about what people did in the 1880s is fairly sparse. Dr. Gleason talked about the use of special napkins and guards. These pads were always homemade and designed to be reused. Similar pads are worn throughout the developing world today. In 1888, Johnson & Johnson patented the first disposable pad to be worn suspended from a special belt. Rubber underwear or aprons were also worn under dresses to protect them from stains. While it isn’t uncommon today to see commercials for tampons or maxi pads on shows aimed at women, ads for menstrual hygiene products were more circumspect, not to mention few and far between in the magazines and newspapers of the 1800s.
|Sanitary belt for holding menstrual pad, ca. 1900|
Today, the lack of feminine hygiene products seriously impacts the education and employment of people throughout the developing world. Without protective products, people are forced to skip school or work so as not to bleed on their clothing in public. There are a number of organizations working to bring safe, low-cost, and reusable menstrual products to people in developing nations. Within the United States, there is a movement to get rid of sales taxes on feminine hygiene products. New York was one of the first states to do so in 2016.