What Did Women Use Before Sanitary Napkins?

If you're a western woman in your child-bearing years, chances are you spend about one week a month changing your tampons or maxi-pads, popping Midol and cursing "Aunt Flo." While there are birth control options that limit or halt monthly output, most monthly periods are just a way of life. We might not consider ourselves "lucky," but with a multi-billion dollar feminine hygiene industry at our fingertips, we're actually quite fortunate. Have you ever wondered what we ever did without those tiny tubes or winged sanitary pads?


Some of the best information we have is from the Museum of Menstruation, a website devoted to the cultural significance of women's periods. Women's sanitary products as we know it were invented fairly recently; the first women's disposable pad hit the market in 1896, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson and called Lister's Towels. What women did before this is not always clear, but here are some probable theories.

Homemade Tampons

According to Nancy Friedman, author of "Everything You Must Know About Tampons," the ancient Egyptians used soft papyrus tampons as early as the 15th century B.C. Japanese women also favored paper tampons, while the Romans used wool. It's probably that tampons were used only by women of the upper-class or by prostitutes who doubled tampons as birth control devices.

Homemade Napkins

It's very likely that most women fashioned their own sanitary napkins from whatever they had handy; paper, cotton, grasses, leaves and fur. Homemade sanitary napkins used by our ancestors have recently made a comeback to thanks to eco-consciousness and frugality; many sites now teach women how to make their own reusable napkins (see Resources).

Menstrual Aprons

As recently as the early 20th century, catalogs sold "menstruation aprons" that featured a belted cloth napkin attached to an apron that hung in the back (presumably to absorb spills). The Museum of Menstruation includes photographs and catalog entries of these precursors to modern sanitary products.

Nothing at All

It is believed that today there are some societies do not require women to wear any type of protection, according to the Museum of Menstruation. This limits what women are able to do during that time of the month. In some parts of India and Africa, women do not have access to sanitary devices and therefore stay at home during their periods and bleed into their underwear or right on the ground.