Periods through history: A Menstrual Timeline
It's that time of the month again. Even with modern-day medicine and menstrual products, it's still a hassle. How did menstruators cope back in the day when these products were not as readily available? Menstruation has been a part of human society for so long that we are unaware of the struggle it posed for menstruators in the past. This blog post will show you how menstruators have managed to go through their periods starting from as far back as ancient civilizations!
In the ancient civilizations of the Babylonian, Hindu, and Chinese, menstruation was viewed as a sign of fertility and a positive omen for the home. The Aztecs and Mayans believed that the menstruating woman was considered to be the most important person, who was treated with respect by society. In other civilizations, however, menstruation was associated with numerous myths surrounding witchcraft and the ability to ward off storms! Sadly, not a lot of information was recorded on the topic in the past, but what was yielded some amazing facts!
The Ancient Civilizations
The use of menstrual products spans throughout history. As far back as the ancient Egyptians, hieroglyphs on menstruation have been translated and some very interesting information has been discovered. Historians believed that tampons were commonly used in ancient Egypt. They were made with rolled-up cotton, or based on softened papyrus. These tampons were cheap to make and so individuals of different socioeconomic backgrounds were able to benefit. Fun fact, the ancient Egyptians believed that menstrual blood had medicinal properties and was used for many things including a remedy for breast ptosis.
Menstruators in ancient Greece also used tampons by wrapping bits of wood together with lint, others used sea sponges as tampons, which interestingly, is still in practice today! Romans were also known to use pads as well as tampons made of wool.
Medieval Times- England
There was a lot of religious shame surrounding menstruation here, so it was a challenging era. Women on their menses would often take precautionary measures to dispel any suspicions. They wore scented herbal pouches around the neck or waist to mask the odour of blood and often carried the remains of a cremated toad near their waist as a cramp remedy.
Historically, menstruation was not as common or regular for menstruators as it is now. Several factors have contributed to this. Menstruating women in the past reached menopause at a much younger age than they do today; some as early as their late thirties. Additionally, there were fewer periods due to a poor diet among most women at the time. Many were underweight, and as a result, their cycles were irregular (oligomenorrhea) or absent altogether (Amenorrhea). These conditions can be seen today and often affect those with very low body fat percentages such as athletes and populations sadly affected by eating disorders like anorexia.
Despite the “rarity” of menses in the middle ages, menstruating women had different methods of collecting menstrual blood. Much like the Romans in ancient times, menstruating women in the medieval era also made tampons by wrapping wool or cotton around wooden twigs. Pads were also used in this time, however, the materials were somewhat different.
Sphagnum cymbifolium, also known as blood moss, was used for absorbing menstrual blood. Blood moss is extremely absorbent, and it was commonly used as a filling for menstrual pads (as well as toilet paper!). Interesting fact, blood moss got its name as it was commonly used in first aid for managing wounds in battle; however, some speculate that the name came from its use as a menstrual pad apparatus.
Rags were also commonly used to control menstrual bleeding. Because underwear was not widely available at the time, using a rag for periods was difficult because menstruating women struggled to keep it in place. As a result, it was extremely difficult to avoid staining and spills. Archeological digs revealed that some wore shorts under their garments to keep the rag in place. Despite this, there was still a risk of staining, so women would simply wear red.
The Tudor Era
A little background on the Tudor period: it lasted from 1485 to 1603 in England and Wales, and it included the Elizabethan period. The religious changes that occurred during the Tudor era are well-known, with most Europeans transitioning from catholic beliefs to a majority becoming protestants. Religion had a vital role in Europeans' daily lives, and as a result, it was used to explain a variety of topics, including why women menstruate.
Menstruation was thought to be a punishment from God, a curse on Eve for succumbing to temptation in the Garden of Eden. Menstruating women were regarded to be dirty and unclean, thus the church forbade them from using pain medications to endure the suffering. As a result, menstruating women turned to herbal remedies to alleviate menstrual cramps. During their monthly menses, they were barred from partaking in any Holy Communions, and some even claimed that menstrual blood was poisonous. Menstrual blood collection methods during the Tudor era were virtually identical to those employed throughout the medieval age.
During the Tudor period, menstruation was a taboo subject, but it was an everyday and very common occurrence. All girls at the time expected to get their period, and it was assumed that when they did, they had reached reproductive age and were capable of conceiving. The ability of a woman to conceive was critical to the continuation of a family line, so the menstrual cycle was an important part of Tudor society, although it was rarely discussed.
Victorian Era to the late 1900s
The Victorian era saw the introduction of the Hoosier sanitary belt. It consisted of a cloth belt with a site to attach a washable and reusable sanitary pad. Between the 1890s and the 1970s, they were extremely popular. Interestingly, the first disposable pads called lister's pads by Johnson&Johnson, were introduced in 1888, two years before the Hoosier sanitary belt. Pulp bandages were used in these pads because it is an extremely absorbent material.
Tampons were also a popular option here. A new design invented by Dr. Earl Haas contained cotton and two cardboard tubes. These tubes were used to assemble the tampon and made placement easier.
The self-adhesive pads that we know and use today were invented in the 1970s.
Modern Day Period
We've come a long way since ancient civilizations, and there are now more options available! Managing one's monthly menses has become easier than in the past, thanks to research and modern medicine (though it may not always feel like it!). As more research is conducted and we learn more about the impact of period products on the environment, it is critical that we do our part and advocate for sustainable feminine products!
Although the concept of menstruation being taboo in some areas still exists, we hope that through education, we can collectively remove the stigma associated with the topic!
This blog was meant to shed light on how the concept of menstruation has changed over the centuries; through the different eras and cultures, the products used were constantly evolving. With the current global environmental crisis, many have begun to advocate for sustainable menstrual products. The menstrual timeline will continue to evolve with time and hopefully bring about positive change for menstruators globally.View visual timeline on our Pinterest.
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