Period Piece: Exploring Menstrual Achievements From 400 BC To Today

by Alex Portee

The earth has seen many artful periods come and go. The Prehistoric, Medieval, Pop Art. Yet, only the menstrual period has withstood the test of time. Ancient Romans thought periods were the mark of dark witches, and today governments around the world make people pay taxes on sanitary products. Still, women (along with the trans men and nonbinary people who have periods) have championed on.

From the realization that menstrual blood wasn’t a cure for disease, to space periods, here’s a look at some key moments in history every card-carrying blood member should be aware of:

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400 BC: Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates describes women fashioning tampons out of sticks wrapped with lint as some of the earliest forms of tampons. Crafty hurts.

77—79 AD: Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder observes that periods have the ability to sour wine, dull steel, and prevent hailstorms and lightning.

1098-1179: Hildegard von Bingen, German Benedictine nun, composer, philosopher, and polymath, prescribes bathing in period blood as a cure for leprosy. So vag-ical.

Hildegard von Bingen

1831: French physician Charles Négrier becomes the first person to link ovulation to periods. Up until this point, most believed menstruation was a form of cleansing that relieved women of poisoned blood.

1885: Harper’s Bazaar features an advertisement for menstrual belts that have the ability to support a napkin as well as pantyhose. For most of the next century, women use menstrual belts to hold their sanitary pads in place.


1920s: Kotex debuts the first disposable sanitary pad. The product is inspired by World War I Red Cross nurses, who realize that the disposable bandages they used on patients absorbed blood better than the flannel material they used and washed.


1933: Dr. Earle Haas reinvents the tampon with the tube-within-a-tube applicator. He buys the patent for the first modern tampon and the name Tampax. When Haas struggles to make much of the product and name he sells both patents to businesswoman Gertrude Tendrich for 32,000. She goes on to create the Tampax company and becomes its first president.

1939-1945: With women left at home to get jobs done during WWII, tampons start taking off because of their convenience. We Can Do It!

1946: The Walt Disney Co. produces the animated film ‘The Story of Menstruation’ for distribution to American schools for 105 million children to see. Of course, sexuality and reproduction get the Disney treatment and are coincidentally left out.

1969: Men on the moon aren’t the only thing that stick this year. Stayfree introduces the first pads with adhesive strips. For the first time, women no longer need garter belts, safety pins or hooks to make their pads stay in place. ?We went to the cooch, in 1969! ?


1970: Judy Blume publishes Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Millions of copies are sold worldwide, meaning “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” probably becomes the most popular chant for breast size increase amongst pre-teens.

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1972: The ban prohibiting advertising for menstrual pads and tampons on the television and radio is lifted by the National Association of Broadcasters.

1973: The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective publishes Our Bodies, Ourselves, reflecting the vital health concerns of women of diverse ages, ethnic and racial backgrounds, and sexual orientations. The women’s lib movement embraces it as a cultural yardstick for its frank discussion of taboo topics related to the various aspects of women’s health and sexuality, which include sexual health, sexual orientation, abortion, abuse and menopause.

1973 cover

1976: The 1976 Medical Amendments to the Food, Drug, Cosmetic Act marks the classification of tampons and menstrual pads are officially “Medical Devices” by the FDA. In turn, this categorization means manufacturers do not have to disclose all of the ingredients on a label. So, still not getting that break we asked for.

1978: Gloria Steinem publishes her essay “If Men Could Menstruate: A Political Fantasy” in Ms. magazine. She muses that if (cis) men had periods they’d “brag about how long and how much” their periods would last. She also points out that if (cis) men had periods, sanitary products would be free and federally funded. Go ahead, sister.

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1980: 1980 proves to be a terrible year for tampon manufacturers when the products become linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome. Tampon brand Rely has its high absorbency tampons permanently yanked from shelves when 55 cases of toxic shock syndrome are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — seven of the reports end in fatalities.

1983: Sally Ride becomes the first American woman to go into space, triggering quite a few questions from NASA engineers regarding her period. The biggest concerns surround the effect gravity will have on period flow and how sanitary products will absorb blood. Before launch, Ride is asked by a group of male engineers, “Is 100 the right number?” Houston, we’ve got a sex-ed problem.

Sally Ride in 1984

1985: Courtney Cox becomes the first person to say the word “period” on a national television commercial. Before this, women’s hygiene brands had to dance around the word in advertisements.

1997: New York U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney introduces the Tampon Safety and Research Act, which requires transparency about chemical levels in tampons from tampon manufacturing companies. The Act is not passed. However, Maloney persists in introducing different versions of the bill in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014, and 2015.

1999: Journalist Karen Houppert publishes The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation and examines the taboo culture that surrounds menstruation, and the devastation such concealment has on the physical and psychological health of women.

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2006: The FDA approves Seasonique, a pill that limits periods to just four times a year. Plenty of people, at this point, are skipping their birth control’s placebo week or using medical devices to avoid their periods, and OBGYNs confirm that no period equals no problem.

2008: Hillary Clinton doesn’t quite yet shatter that ‘highest, hardest glass ceiling,” but she does manage to put “about 18 million cracks” in it during her first run for the United States presidency. All of this in spite of regular “concerns” from pundits who question the ways in which her female “hormones” might make her a threat to the presidency. In fact, when asked about the “downsides of a female president” on Fox News‘ The O’Reilly Factor, Marc Rudov, author of Under the Clitoral Hood: How to Crank Her Engine Without Cash, Booze, or Jumper Cables mentions PMS and the mood swings — despite the fact that, at 61, Clinton was almost certainly no longer menstruating. Let’s just remember how many wars are being led by men today okay, boys?

Hillary Clinton official Secretary of State portrait crop

2011: A Reddit AMA thread titled “I design tampons. AMA!” is hosted by an anonymous user called “karnim” who identifies himself as a male research-and-development intern for on of the top tampon brands. The conversation lasts for around 10 hours, with karnim answering questions like “Who has blue periods?” and “Have you ever had a request from a lesbian to design a tampon in the likeness of Jodie Foster’s index finger?” Funny because for such a taboo topic, quite a few men proved to have quite a few questions.

2014: Paula Kragten, a Dutch journalist, launches Period!, the first magazine dedicated to the topic of menstruation. Just like your period, it comes out once a month!

2015: After Fox News anchor Megan Kelly asks him questions about misogynistic comments he’s made in the past, Donald Trump tells CNN’s Don Lemon that ‘You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes… Blood coming out of her wherever.” The comments result in swift condemnation from conservatives and a revoked party innovation from RedState. And yet… here we all are today.

Present: Today’s tampons look pretty different from the sticks and cotton variants of years past. Some expand into blossoms, while others swell into familiar shapes like umbrellas and stingrays. Still, plenty believe there’s still room in our lovely vagenes for improvement. To this day, the U.S. Patent Office continues to see various patent proposals for tampon innovations filter through their office. Keep an eye out for tampons with saturation indicators, reusable tampon applicators, and vibrating tampons.

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