Periods in History: Who invented the tampon?

This series brings to light the cultural and historical perspectives on periods that have shaped our modern understanding of menstruation. First in the series is a look at the history of the tampon and its influence on modern day menstruators.

A Revolutionary Invention

In 1931 US physician Dr Earle Haas patented a new compressed cotton stick and telescopic tubing, sounds familiar? This new product marked a revolution in the way that we manage our periods, drawing inspiration from Haas’ friend, a dancer, who confided that she inserted sponges to absorb her menstrual blood. Haas’ new product, the tampon, was designed to be discreet, practical and convenient.

The tampon built on hundreds of years of history, with evidence that tampon-like products were used as far back as the Egyptians, who inserted vaginal pessaries made of elephant dung and lint soaked in acacia juice, and the Romans who used wool to plug their menstrual flow, to name but a few!

What was revolutionary about Haas’ product is really down to the work of business woman Gertrude Tendrich, who bought the patent in 1933 and founded the company, Tampax, in 1936. Her work transformed the tampon in to the market dominating force that we know today.

Through its interior insertion, the tampon allowed much more freedom than the other products that were available at the time. It meant you could swim, dance and wear what you wanted on your period, without giving the game away. Prior to this many women were using homemade products or the relatively new period pads, which at the time were held up by a garter belt and were bulky and indiscreet.

This skit sums it up nicely!

An Uphill Battle

To understand the importance of the tampon, we need to understand contextually what it was like for women on their periods in this time. Marketing for period products was centred around discretion, as talking about your menstrual cycle was taboo. People used euphemisms to talk about periods and brand names like Tampax, Kotex and Modess, meant women could ask for a brand without naming the product. One brand even went as far as using ‘silent purchase coupons’ so that women didn’t have to face the shame of being heard asking for products.

Tampax tampons initially faced an uphill battle. As they had to be sold in discreet boxes, the company struggled with marketing a product that they couldn’t talk about to an audience that were not yet familiar with the internal insertion, or even the name tampon. Yet, the “no pins, no pads, no belts” allure of the product was a hit with women. In the first five years use increased five-fold, attracting educated upper class women who could afford to buy their own products instead of home-making them.

A good old fashioned tampon sale

With the advent of the second world war, the tampon’s popularity increased further, as women began working in factories and physically demanding jobs and needed discreet protection that they could move in. Interestingly, by this time the menstrual cup had also already been patented, with American actor Leona Chalmers filing the patent in 1937 for a rudimentary rubber cup that looks much like the ones we use today.

The problem with the tampon and the menstrual cup was that many people were scandalised by the very idea. Inserting the product into the vagina required more contact with the genitals than was culturally acceptable for the time. People genuinely feared that the tampon would provide inappropriate sexual pleasure from insertion and worried that it would break the hymen. While attitudes towards tampons warmed up due to the practical benefits of the product, the menstrual cup did not find popularity in the market until much more recently. The tampons applicator reduced dreaded contact with your own body, whereas the cup involved more intimate touching and handling of the menstrual blood itself (Oh the scandal!).

The Next Revolution

In 2019, an estimated 4.5 billion boxes of Tampax tampons were purchased worldwide, Tampax is the industry leader with a 29% global market share, showing that the tampon is still an incredibly popular period product to this day. With the addition of ‘innovations’ over the years such as, Tampax Pearl, with a plastic applicator and rounded tip, scented tampons (because periods should smell like flowers…), and smaller, more discreet versions, the tampon has become ubiquitous for people managing periods.

The Tampax slogan “50 years of living a life without limits”, reminds us of the very limiting social and cultural taboos that people faced when menstruating. The tampon really did help break down barriers, allowing women to participate in sport, the workforce and beyond.

And Tampax played an important part in this change. In 1941, the company introduced an education department, sending out ‘Tampax ladies’ to educate women on the proper use of tampons and their periods. To this day, period companies still visit schools to educate them on periods. This in some cases, sadly forms the majority of the education young women are given on menstruation. It goes to show the lengths that companies went to get new innovative products into the hands of women, breaking down taboos, as well as benefiting their own business aims.

Today, these big brands are facing increased competition from newer, more environmentally friendly companies. With more choice than ever, consumers can now buy cups, tampons, pads, and disposable or reusable options with ease in shops across the UK. The menstrual cup is finally having its moment, as people confront the stigma and taboos around menstruation in search of reusable products that work.

It would seem that another revolution has arrived.

Yet, we are still living with period shame and stigma. Only in 2017 did Bodyform become the first period product to advertise using red blood instead of mysterious blue liquid normally used to denote menstrual blood, and only this year did the This Girl Can campaign feature a women’s visible tampon string in its adverts.

We may think that the euphemisms and need for absolute discretion of the last century is gone, yet to this day many people still feel that their period is not something that they can discuss or show in public. With phrases like ‘sanitary product’ and ‘feminine hygiene’ still commonly used instead of actually saying the word period, we still have work to do to normalise our periods and the products we use in our culture.

In just over a century we have arrived at a place where people never need to question whether or not they can ride a horse on their period, or swim, or do anything they fancy. Our products are continuing to be innovated on and I hope that in the next century (or ideally less) we can reach a point in which our periods are normalised and celebrated in our culture.

So, let’s celebrate the tampon, the cup, the pad and all the other fantastic products that mean that we can live better while menstruating.