The average American woman uses more than 16,000 tampons in her lifetime, yet the history behind our cotton comrades remains a mystery to many. The commercial tampon as we know it today is actually a significant cultural artifact and a feat of technical engineering that has been shaped by many invisible forces throughout time.
The Atlantic dove into the long and fraught history of these small wonders. Here are a few surprising facts.
1.) Some of the earliest tampons were more often used as contraceptives
Using ‘tampon-like’ devices – intra-vaginal devices made from a string and a wad of something absorbent – as a barrier contraceptive has a long history. One of the earliest references comes from Ancient Egypt where these devices were made from papyrus. The devices were also used with spermicide made from a mixture of acacia berries, colocynth, and honey. Later, medicated tampons, like the one above from the mid-1900s, were made of cotton wool.
2.) The origin story of the modern commercial tampon involves a condom and an enraged father
Legend has it that in the early 1920s, a Kimberly-Clark employee named John Williamson poked some holes in a condom, stuffed it with the fluffy, absorbent filling used in commercial Kotex pads, and pitched it to his dad, a medical consultant at the same company, as a menstrual solution. The elder Williamson is said to have exclaimed, “Never would I put any such strange article inside a woman!” and swiftly shot down the idea.
3.) In 1983, tampons went to space
When Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, NASA engineers asked her whether 100 tampons would be enough for her weeklong journey on the space shuttle Challenger (uhhh, Houston, we have a problem). This event helped cement the tampon’s reputation as both a fixture of modern womanhood and a complete mystery to men. As The American Prospect notes, the first tampons in space “were packed with their strings connecting them, like a strip of sausages, so they wouldn’t float away.” Perhaps this feat contributed to a 1986 Consumer Reports article naming the tampon one of the “50 small wonders and big deals that revolutionized the lives of consumers”—right alongside air conditioning and running shoes.
Click here for more little known facts about the history of tampons
Images via the Atlantic, ScienceMuseum
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Olivia’s first sentence was “No talk, just laugh” and since then, she’s made it her business to find the humorous side of life and share her absurd observations with others. She’s a writer, a lover of all things pop culture, and she can’t fall asleep without having 30 Rock on in the background. If you like looking at pictures of food and random dogs, you should check out Olivia’s Instagram.