Evolution Of The Period: How Attitudes Have Changed Over Time

Photo by Ava Sol

Women have been dealing with backwards attitudes towards menstruation since the dawn of time when we came into existence as a species. You would think that 2000+ years of surviving around menstruating females would lead to some pretty progressive thinking, right? Wrong. Even in the modern age of 2019 people who bleed are still facing shame, stigma and in some places, physical suffering. It is only in recent years that society’s attitude has started to shift towards being more aware and open about periods, and despite this change, there is still an incredibly long way to go.

To determine how far we have moved forward positively as a society it is important to look back and analyse where we started. The attitudes today still aren’t anything to be proud of but you can rest assured that they were far worse back then. People are stubborn creatures but progress can happen, eventually. We are lucky enough to be living in the modern age where we have access to (even if taxed or over-expensive) menstruation products that don’t require some sort of harness or weird mechanism to function. From the weird to the plain outrageous here’s our timeline of attitudes towards menstruation throughout history.

Ancient Times

The ancient times marks the dawn of recorded civilisation, a time that was primarily documented by men. Due to this there is very little that is known about the experiences that women had during menstruation, or how it affected their lives. Another possible reason for the silence surrounding periods may be the lack of scientific evidence that was available during the time, which left to a whole lot of wild theories and speculation. As a result, what we do know is how others perceived menstruation. There was a wide range of perspectives shared by historians that include ideas about menstruating women being involved in magic and sorcery.

One historian that shared these beliefs was Roman philosopher and author Pliny the Elder, who believed that a nude woman on her period could prevent hailstorms and lightning as well as protect crops from attacking insects. Well, who’s to say that we aren’t climate-changing powerful creatures? Pliny also thought that these menstruating dark witches could also kill bees and blunt weapons just by looking at them, and that menstrual blood drove dogs insane.

An alternate belief was that menstrual blood held certain powers and had the ability to cast, purify or protect spells. In ancient Egypt, documentation in the Ebers Papyrus (1550BC) shows that menstruation blood may have been used as an ingredient in certain medicines.

These outlandish mentalities were all part of a bigger mystery relating to how exactly women in the ancient times were actually dealing with menstruation. Egyptian women may just have been the inventors of the tampon – of course a much harsher, rougher version – using papyrus that had been soaked in the Nile River. Definitely not the most ideal hygienic place to leave something that was going to be put inside you, considering that it was the same spot where previous month’s tampons were discarded, along with raw sewerage. On the other hand, Roman women – who supposedly came from a more practical society –  chose to use wool to soak up their menstruation blood, which had to be just about as itchy as it sounds.

Medieval

A similar issue exists within the Middle Ages to ancient times; a lack of records surrounding women’s biology and condition due to the plain fact of the leading scribes being men. What we have gathered is that women were able to have a break from the ancient times custom of stuffing random bits of fabrics and plants inside them, to embracing the free flow. Bleeding straight into their everyday clothes seems to have been a way of life for quite some time for menstruating women, simply opting to wear dark clothes to hide the stains as discovered by expert Laura Klostermann Kidd.

There were still a few strange rituals, the burning of toads to ease heavy menstrual flow being a key one, as Medieval Europeans did, according to historian Amy License. A nun by the name of Hildegard von Bingen believed that menstruation blood would cure leprosy, while others believed that drinking period blood (why would that be an option?!) actually caused leprosy and that having sex with a menstruating woman would decompose the penis.

Modern

Finally, somewhere in the early modern times awareness began to circulate that women choosing between stuffing random bits of parchment into their vaginas or just simply bleeding out into their clothes, wasn’t really the best management method.

1850s

The 1850s saw the development of a range of people looking to create patents for a variety of menstrual products. They weren’t very good, or comfortable, but it was still a start. “They were pieces of rubber that you would wear over your butt between your bloomers and skirt, so when you sat down there was a rubber barrier,” says Sharra Vostral, associate professor of History at Purdue University.

1896

A product called Lister’s Towels come on the market, the first commercially available menstrual pad. They were a terrible failure due to the still backwards attitudes of society of the time, being too shocking of a product to properly market and sell.

1920

Kotex made history for the menstruation movement by selling the first pad to be made of cellulose, a cotton-acrylic material discovered for its usefulness during the first World War. Once the war was over there were warehouses sitting with piles of the same material that had been used for bandages, which nurses in France repurposed to soak up menstrual blood.

1929-1930s

All hail Earle Hass, the inventor of the first tampon in 1929. The patent for the tampon was bought by Gertrude Tendrich in 1933, who then founded Tampax.

1890-1970s

During this time western women wore the monstrosity that was the “Hoosier” sanitary belt. It was a menstrual belt that was worn with thick cotton pads that could be clipped or pinned on. Almost a century after their inception self-adhesive pads were finally released on the market.

Present Day

Pads and tampons have been developed over the years to come up with a range of options suitable to your flow. The 2000s onwards saw a surge in popularity towards the menstrual cup, which had been invented in the 1930s but didn’t suit the mentality of the time. Despite menstrual product development coming a long way there is still a significant amount of shame that people all over the world still have to deal with. Maybe in another thousand years, we’ll finally be shame-free.