Our collection includes a small, but steadily growing number of menstrual products, including a recently acquired Mooncup. Together, these objects offer a brief history of menstrual care, including misconceptions, missinformation and marketing, from the 19th century to the present day.
The histories of menstruation and menstrual care are often overlooked, despite almost 50% of the world's population experiencing periods at some point in their lives. The use of menstrual care products goes back centuries: in ancient Greece, lint wrapped around wood was used as a tampon, and moss as well as buffalo skin were used as pads by Native Americans. In the 18th and 19th centuries, women in Europe used woven fabric or flannel to make homemade cloth pads. These could be washed and re-used, demonstrating a more sustainable and economical option, but still far less hygienic than the solutions many are accustomed to today.
Menstruation has often been considered taboo in Western societies. However, ancient Egyptian medical texts, for example, state that menstrual blood could be used in ointments for health treatments. On the other hand, the first Latin encyclopedia from 73 AD stated: "to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison". In the 19th century, negative associations with menstruation were propogated widely, even by medical professionals. An 1811 publication titled, The Principles of Midwifery, written by Dr John Burns, states that menstruation is "to be considered a disease". Such stigma negatively impacted the lives of women, and meant that menstrual products could not easily be advertised. Women were reluctant to be seen purchasing products with negative connotations, and as a result, the first commercially available menstrual products were financially unsuccessful.
Southhalls' sanitary belt
In 1896, Johnson & Johnson released Lister's Towels also known as 'Sanitary Napkins for Ladies' which were most likely the first disposable and commercially sold pads. They were manufactured out of cotton and gauze. The towels would be attached to a sanitary belt, made from elastic webbing with two clips attached – one at the front and one at the back – to which a washable sanitary napkin could be secured. Our collection includes an example from the early 20th century, Southalls' sanitary belt, complete with its paper packaging and pamphlet. The belt, or 'Shaped Towel Suspender' as it was called by the Birmingham-based manufacturing chemist, was used to secure sanitary towels in place. In 1894, Southalls' placed an advert in The Antiquary, a magazine for the study of the past, addressed to ladies 'Travelling by Land or Sea', while another advert from an 1894 magazine proclaimed Southalls' sanitary towels, 'the greatest invention of the century for Woman's Comfort'.
Pads were kept in position with the use of a sanitary belt up until the 1970s. In 1969, the first adhesive pads were introduced by Stayfree, and the sanitary belt quickly lost its popularity. Adhesive pads could be worn with much more comfortable underpants, such as these Kleinerts pants, which include a waterproof section onto which sanitary pads could be placed, providing additional protection against leakage when worn with disposable pads. The Kleinerts pants were acquired by the museum as part of a large donation from a wealthy London socialite, Jill Ritbald.
If this underwear seems familiar, it may be because of the renewed popularity of period underwear in the 21st century. Menstrual underwear, or 'period pants', have been available from a number of brands since the mid-2010s. These moisture-wicking, antimicrobial pants appeal to contemporary consumers who want a chemical-free, comfortable, and sustainable alternative to pads and tampons.
Tampon Safety Campaign poster
Tampax was founded in 1934 by Gertrude Tendrich, just three years after the invention of the tampon as we know it today (first patented by Earle Haas). Tendrich bought the tampon patent and created a female-centered company, which from its very beginning was a trailblazer in tampon advertising; before the 1985 Tampax television advert, starring American actress Courtney Cox, the word 'period' was never used on TV.
This poster, issued by the Women's Environmental Network as part of their Tampon Safety Campaign in around 1990, was designed to include a wealth of information about the health and environmental risks of using tampons, as well as actionable tips. Since the publication of the poster, the Tampon Safety Bill was passed in 1995 as well as the General Product Safety Regulation of 2005, which regulates tampons and other feminine hygiene products.
The first menstrual cup was invented over seven decades before the founding of Mooncup Ltd. In 1937, an American actress, entrepreneur, and author Leona Chalmers filed a patent for the first menstrual cup made from latex rubber. Unfortunately, soon after its launch, Chalmer's product was forced to be discontinued because of war-related rubber shortages, but production resumed after the end of the war. Mooncup, created in 2002 in the UK by Su Hardy, was the world's first medical-grade silicone menstrual cup, offering a hypoallergenic alternative in the niche market of reusable period care products. It is latex-free, hypoallergenic, and contains no dyes, perfumes, BPA, phthalates, plastic, bleaches, or toxins.
Mooncup Ltd is also one of the first companies to set the standard for the sustainable periods movement – the use of menstrual products which are more beneficial for the environment – enabling users to reduce the waste they produce with a product that is cost-efficient and designed to last for many years. The product website states that only around five Mooncups are needed in one's lifetime, compared to around 11,000 more conventional menstrual products.
A Tampax Cup, together with its packaging, entered the museum's Rapid Response Collection in 2019. Despite not being the inventor of medical-grade silicone menstrual cups, Tampax claims that as market leaders, they have the appropriate expertise to transform the industry of menstrual care products. With the launch of the Tampax Cup, they aimed to perfect the menstrual cup and highlight its positive environmental aspects. You can read more about our acquisition of the Tampax Cup on our blog.
The Menopause Pot
The 'Menopause Pot' was created by Elspeth Owen in 1987 in response to the onset of menopause. Owen created the unglazed earthenware pot as a memorial to contain her last bloodied tampons, which were repeatedly dipped in slip and fired. The object highlights the topic of menopause, so often dismissed, raising awareness about menopause and perimenopause (the period preceding menopause in which one's body goes through the natural transition to menopause).
The small, but varied collection of menstrual products in the museum collection illustrates the way in which menstrual product design shapes the way millions of women around the world experience periods. Public-facing initiatives such as the 'Out of sight, out of mind?' poster also highlight health and environmental issues surrounding menstruation, as well as the risks of inadequate research, education, and poor menstrual care product design. We hope this important area of the collection will continue to grow, and have recently introduced a 'menstrual products' object category to the museum's Collection Management System, meaning such objects will be more easily findable in the future.
This article was written by designer and design historian Wiktoria Kijowska. Wiktoria graduated from the V&A/RCA History of Design course in 2023, where she primarily researched Polish design history. She aims to make design history more accessible and relevant to contemporary design and lives.