Say period and silence follows. This discomfiture in having an open conversation about women’s periods has often led to ignorance about menstruation hygiene and compelled women to resort to easily accessible means of absorbents like sand, wood pulp and cloth, during ‘that time of the month.’ Neither very efficient nor hygienic, such absorbents can lead to a plethora of diseases, some of which can be fatal. As per WHO data, “India accounts for around 27 per cent of the world’s cervical cancer deaths, almost twice the global average — poor menstrual hygiene is partly to blame.”
Till date one of the most viable means to control bleeding during menstruation remains the sanitary napkin, especially in India. Now that the GST council has conceded to a year-long demand and exempted them from the ambit of the Goods and Services Tax, one is hopeful that it will make the napkins more affordable and accessible to women. While we still wait to see how that pans out, here’s a brief trip through history on how the blood absorbents came into being and evolved by leaps and bounds.
Did you know sanitary napkins were first made for men?
Though most men may shirk away when it comes to the ‘period talk’, ironically, sanitary napkins were initially made for them. These disposable pads were developed by nurses in France to control the bleeding of the soldiers injured during battle. Made from materials that were easily available on the battlefield like wood pulp bandages, these were very absorbent and cheap enough to throw away later.
Sanitary napkin goes commercial
This design was soon borrowed by commercial manufacturers and in 1888, the first disposable pads, called the Southball Pad, were available for purchase. In America, Johnson & Johnson launched their own product by 1896 that was named Lister’s Towel: Sanitary Towel’s for Ladies. However, the problem with this ‘not so original’ name was that women felt uncomfortable about buying it due to its very obvious innuendo. Thus, the company changed it to ‘Nupak’ in 1920s that in no way described the product.
While social inhibitions played their part, the monetary conditions of women also hindered them from using these napkins. The pads were priced quite high and could not be afforded by common ladies, who continued to rely on traditional methods. However, those who could go and buy them would not ask the clerk for them, but would quietly go and place money in a box and take the box of pads from the counter themselves.
Menstruation belts that were notorious for slipping
The pads available were also not that effective and were notorious for slipping either forward or backward from the intended position. They were generally made from 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. However, progress was made in the form of adhesive strips that kept the pad in place.
While echoes of sanitary napkins (as we know them today) were heard in all these designs, they made their way into India much later.
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While these methods are revolting enough in themselves, history charts the development of even more unconventional and painful ways of women dealing with their periods.
In ancient Egypt, women used papyrus that they soaked in the waters of Nile river to soften it enough to absorb blood.
One can only wonder how the Grecian women kept their white togas pristine. As it turns out, it came with a lot of pain, as they used splinters of wood wrapped in cotton to absorb blood.
England and Germany
Some scholars note that the 18th and 19th century English and German women were encouraged to bleed into their clothes. By the 1850s, women fashioned the first “maxi pad” out of bandages, sacks, elastic, buttons and wire.
World War 1
As with many things, world war one bought quite a reform in women’s period sanitation. Now, options like sanitary aprons were available. However, they were less for collecting blood and more for protecting the clothing. They were worn under skirts and dresses and tied around the waist.
Another alternative during this time were period bloomers. These panty-like garments were like a large rubber-coated diaper. They kept women leak and stain-free, but not very sanitary, considering they weren’t breathable.