There are many myths and legends around the history of tampons, but as it often is, the plain facts of history are no less fascinating. Let’s take a look at what the original tampons were used for (and made of), how they evolved into menstrual devices, how they developed over time, and lastly – since history is ever growing – how innovation has entered the industry.
“Tampons” for medical use
Of course, they weren’t called tampons in Ancient Egypt, which was where the first similarly-constructed device was recorded. Instead, they were medical devices, designed to treat prolapsed pelvic organs, much as a modern vaginal pessary would today. Linen would be wrapped around earth from the Nile river, which was mixed with honey and galena, and placed inside the woman.
That this could be another way to treat pelvic infections did not escape the Egyptians, or the Romans who adopted some of their practices. Various devices made of dung, acacia juice, goosefat, and opium (used in different mixes) were wrapped in lint or linen and used for gynecological problems and even contraception.
Hippocrates, in 500 BC, writes about absorbent material wrapped around sticks to carry medicine into the vaginal cavity. While many assume he was specifically talking about menstrual absorption, there is no evidence that it is specifically meant to stop bleeding. What we can know is that he wanted to make sure nothing was internally applied without absorbent material involved. Makes sense.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the next recorded “tampons” were still used primarily for medical use. They soaked up unusual (non-menstrual) discharge, or applied medicines and other treatments to the vaginal area. Doctors and nurses were the primary users of tampons to medicate women.
Tampons for menstrual privacy
There is a taboo on menstruation that lasts until today, which means it took quite a while for menstruation-related items to become commercial. Throughout history, women dealt with their monthly bleeds in the privacy of their own homes or farms. The first time women had to creatively manage their periods was in the First World War, when nurses created both pads and tampons so they could continue working effectively.
The pads created in that time led to Kotex pads in 1920, when wealthy white women bought them in department stores and bribed the cashiers to make sure they held their tongues. This was the first commercial distribution of menstruation-related items.
In 1931, a physician named Earle Cleveland Haas created Tampax, a tightly rolled cylinder of cotton with an applicator. He was inspired by a female friend who used an internally-applied sponge for menstrual flow, and informed by his own experience, since doctors had been using cotton plugs for bullet wounds and other secretions for years. It was marketed as an “invisible” device “even with the most perfectly fitted gown.” Gertrude Tendrich bought the patent and launched the now-familiar brand.
The evolution of tampons
Of course, no beginning industry avoids challenges and pitfalls. There were many things manufacturers did not yet know, like how long it was safe to use a tampon before changing it. As a result, from 1979 to 1983, over 2,200 cases of tampon-related toxic shock syndrome were reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It took several years after that for manufacturers to figure out what was even happening. From there, they had to adjust the chemicals used to produce tampons, and defend their products against Federal investigations and lawsuits.
Finally, the Food and Drug Administration laid down regulations that ensured only trace amounts of dangerous chemicals were used in the production of tampons. Slowly but surely, tampon manufacturers got back on their feet, rebranded, and continuously assured customers that their products were safe and FDA-approved.
The innovation of tampons
Innovation makes history. Tampons are not staying the same, as physicians and manufacturers learn more about the female body, and adjust to the many different occupations women hold in society.
One historically-relevant innovation is organic tampons. Drawing straight from the toxic shock syndrome controversy, organic tampons drop the risk of being affected by trace chemicals. Some women are carriers of a virus that make them more susceptible to it, so it is a significant health-related innovation.
Other innovations related to comfort and ease of use are saturation indicators (so women know when to change), differently-shaped tampons to prevent leaks, reusable applicators to help the environment, biodegradable tampons (also to reduce environmental footprint), and so forth. As long as there is human history, the innovation is not likely to stop.