The bloody history of femcare

5 min read

Periods. The average woman spends six years of her life having them, so you’d think inventors would be falling over themselves to make that time easier for us, right? Wrong. Until the turn of the last millennium, there were only a handful of innovations in mainstream period products. The femcare industry – now worth $35bn – has taken a long time to arrive.

That’s not to say that some people haven’t tried; the path to 2018 has been littered with several bizarre failed experiments. In 1950s America, a well-meaning gynaecologist named Karl Karnacky packed the vaginas of menstruating patients with a powder that converts blood into a salt for reabsorption into the bloodstream, an unappealing process that also caused serious infection. In the 1970s ‘menstrual extraction’ promised to dramatically shorten your period. It involved a syringe, a valve, a mason jar and a couple of very close friends to suck out an entire menses-worth of blood in a few minutes. At least Steven A. Kilgore’s 1998 patent for a vibrating tampon, which he conjectured might ease menstrual cramps, put the user’s comfort first.

In the 1970s ‘menstrual extraction’ promised to dramatically shorten your period. It involved a syringe, a valve, a mason jar and a couple of very close friends.

The first free-bleeders

Despite their obvious flaws, at least powders and vibrating tampons show a sense of innovation. For centuries, menstruating women simply bled straight into their clothes. According to English Renaissance scholar Dr Sara Read, this ancient version of free-bleeding – minus the politics – was standard practice among peasant women in the early modern era, and probably before. Those higher up the social scale employed various techniques to manage their flow: in mediaeval Italy, women were encouraged to sit on a bed of wild rocket cooked in wine – potentially delicious but madly impractical. For bleeding on the go, some people used wads of sphagnum moss, an old battlefield staple. And many fashioned pads out of bits of cloth, washing and reusing them every month (hence ‘on the rag’). Sensible enough, yet there was a problem: women have spent most of history going commando in crotchless undies. With no gusset in sight, where do you pin a rag? The inventory of Queen Elizabeth I reveals her solution: linen strips attached to a black silk girdle.

A brief history of the towel

From Elizabethan practicality to Victorian decency, the next innovation came along 250 years later. Once a month, the 19th century woman’s already elaborate underwear was further complicated by a ‘sanitary apron’. Tied at the front, a strip of waterproof rubberised cloth dangled behind her legs to protect petticoats, skirts and the upholstery. The apron was paired with a (clearly unreliable) menstrual belt and reusable cloth pad.

It was not until 1919 and the release of Kimberly-Clark’s Kotex disposable sanitary towel that modern-day femcare arrived. Kotex pads were made from Cellucotton, a wood-pulp-derived material several times more absorbent than cotton, and originally developed for surgical dressings. In 1920, a national press campaign announced Kotex’s availability in US pharmacies. An unusually straight-talking advertisement details the pad’s exact dimensions and anatomy, with its “generous tabs for pinning”. The ad also tells the “romantic” story of the towel’s invention by allied nurses caring for the wounded in WWI France. While it’s hard to see how millions of men dying is romantic, the story is true: during the war, army nurses wrote about their success using the dressings as menstrual pads. Urgently in need of a new market for its wadding after 1918’s armistice, Kimberly-Clark seized on the idea.

Callaly vintage sanitary towel ad

And yet there was a persistent problem with anchoring towels comfortably and effectively. Even in the high-tech age of disposable sanitary towels and – by the 1930s – closed crotch and close-fitting knickers, Queen Elizabeth I’s sanitary girdle still ruled. By all reports, sanitary belts are extremely uncomfortable. Bustle.com’s Gabrielle Moss offers a frank account of her recent experience with a vintage belt: “the pad rubbed all over my ladybits, roaming through my underwear like a curious puppy, chafing my labia one moment, giving me a wedgie the next.” Menstruators enthusiastically binned these instruments of torture when brands including Stayfree and Libresse introduced the adhesive strip to their pads in the 1970s. The modern sanitary towel was launched, soaring to new heights of comfort with the addition of wings in the 1990s.

Tampon tales

Despite online whisperings, ancient Greek women did not make tampons by wrapping lint around twigs. Historian Dr Helen King recently debunked this as a mistranslation of Hippocrates. She clarifies that in classical times, tampon-like insertions were either medicinal or contraceptive. In fact, the use of tampons in menstrual care is remarkably new: the very first arrived in 1879, with Dr Aveling’s Vaginal Tampon-Tube. Unfortunately, the ‘tube’ was a speculum made out of cheap glass, and the product surprised Dr Aveling by making hardly any sales.

The first successfully marketed tampon began with a 1931 patent by Dr Earle Haas, who had observed his wife’s difficulties with rags. Seeking something better, Haas was inspired by an enlightened friend in California who informed him that during her period she simply popped a sponge in her vagina. Haas set to work creating a dense cotton tampon in a telescoping paper-tube applicator. He sold his ingenious design to Tampax-founder Gertrude Tenderich in 1936, for a bargain $32,000.

Callaly vintage Tampax ad

 

Since then, we have seen the introduction of plastic applicators, the option of no applicator, and a disastrous experiment in 1980 to make a super-absorbent tampon, which resulted in a tragic spike in deaths from toxic shock syndrome. Besides these events, the tampon is a product that has largely remained the same since its original incarnation. With the menstrual cup also invented in the 1930s, it is safe to say that there was no significant innovation in the field of femcare for the next 80 years. But eventually, things started to change…

The world wakes up

Callaly Newsweek there will be blood

In 2016 Newsweek heralded the dawn of a new era with its bold “There will be blood” cover story. Although femcare innovation still hadn’t reached the heady heights of, say, the men’s shaving industry, suddenly there was plenty to say about periods. New brands including Flex, with its disposable menstrual discs, and period pants Thinx joined menstrual cup manufacturers in giving people a range of options to choose from. The rise of organic cotton allowed women to use tampons that hadn’t been bleached with chlorine.

Meanwhile, Callaly’s co-founder Alex had been working as a gynaecologist, witnessing on a daily basis women’s frustrations with the performance of their tampons. Leaking was common and many people were still opting to use bulky liners as backup. After 10 years in the making, in 2017 Callaly launched a completely new design that could put an end to the discomfort and inconvenience most people with periods had simply come to expect.

Alex designed a tampon with an integrated mini-liner using sterile, 100% organic cotton with a no-shed surface, and an applicator made from medical-grade breathable membrane. Together, he and garment technologist Ewa refined the design to create a product that protects against leaks, prevents the user from forgetting they’re wearing a tampon, and offers a comfortable, mess-free experience that allows us to bleed without fear. “I hope that all people with periods will be excited to see another product available, Tampliners might be right for them and even if they’re not be glad that there is now more choice for women in an area that desperately needed innovation,” explained Alex. 

This time, the developments we’re witnessing can’t be dismissed as a passing fad, a pretty coloured applicator or a new logo. This time, we’re seeing real change.

It’s taken many decades for the industry to catch up with demand, but finally we’re getting there. It’s becoming far more common to hear periods being talked about, from the patent office to newspapers to parliamentary debate. This time, the developments we’re witnessing can’t be dismissed as a passing fad, a pretty coloured applicator or a new logo. This time, we’re seeing real change. Long may it last.

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