history of period products tampons sanitary pads



Period pants have made the headlines this week as the UK government have scrapped VAT (value added tax) on the product, meaning the average buyer will save around 16%.

This is welcome news for women. According to a survey by Plan International UK, one in ten girls in the UK have been unable to afford period products at some stage in their lifetime. With this in mind, scrapping VAT on period pants is a step closer to menstrual equity and affordable period care for all.

This progressive move not only reflects a shift in policy but also highlights the ongoing effort to make menstrual products more accessible. Due to the gender health gap and general sexism, menstrual health was, and still arguably is, viewed as a taboo subject. It’s taken generations to achieve the awareness and policy change that we see today.

In this article, we are taking a whistle stop tour of the history of period products. From centuries of stigma to questionable early inventions, it has been quite the journey.


Ancient civilisations and their period products

In ancient civilizations, women devised creative and resourceful ways to manage menstruation. Egyptians were known to use softened papyrus to act as a make shift tampon. In Ancient Greece, some women would use natural sea sponge to absorb their period. Native American women used buffalo skin. Other forms of menstrual care included moss, grass, and cloth. Ancient women made the most of natural materials around them, making them surprisingly sustainable.


history of period products



Medieval era

In medieval times, periods were regarded as evil, and linked to disease, madness, and even crop failure. This made menstruation an extreme taboo. Period products were not manufactured or accessible for centuries. Women of the time would use scrap fabric, linen, or simply bled into their clothes. In the medieval era, women would wear layers of skirt and underclothing which would often hide blood in public.


history of period products
Medieval sketch of a woman being controlled by her uterus, transforming her into an evil, boisterous beast



Victorians and their inventions

In the Victorian era, attitudes towards periods, you guessed it, pretty much remained the same. The stigma made women avoid purchasing menstrual items in public meaning early attempts at creating commercial period products typically failed.

In the 1850s, the sanitary apron was invented. This included rubber bars which held fabric over the buttocks to stop bleeding onto clothes. Albeit not the most comfortable, this was one of the first commercial products.


history of period products



In 1896, Johnson & Johnson invented the sanitary belt acting as the early ancestors of the modern day sanitary pad. It was the first mass produced, disposable sanitary solution. Towels could be manually attached and detached to the belt with clips.


the history of period products
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert museum



20th century period products

The mid-20th century saw the rise of disposable menstrual products, with the introduction of commercially produced tampons and sanitary pads. Brands like Tampax and Kotex played pivotal roles in making these products widely available. Disposable pads became thinner and more absorbent, while tampons evolved to include applicators for easier insertion.


sanitary pads tampons Kotex
An 1960’s advertisement for Kotex sanitary pads, courtesy of Kotex



Sustainability Revolution

As environmental consciousness grows, there has been a renewed interest in sustainable period products. Reusable cloth pads, menstrual cups, periods pants, and organic disposable options have gained popularity as eco-friendly alternatives. Not only is this moving towards a more sustainable society but it ultimately gives women a choice, something women did not have for centuries.


menstrual products history of period products
Science Museum Group. Tulip valve menstrual cup. 2019-482Science Museum Group Collection Online. Accessed 5 January 2024. https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co8652387/tulip-valve-menstrual-cup-menstrual-cup.


This brings us to the modern day and therefore to the end of our journey through the history of period products. Periods are definitely still a taboo, but products are now varied and women now have a choice to choose a product which suits them. They are slowly becoming more accessible too. However, with 137,700 children in the UK missing school because of period poverty in the span of a year, more needs to be done to make period care truly accessible for all.


Here at The Women’s Organisation, we are advocates for period equity. At our conference centre 54 St James Street, we have instated free menstrual products in all of our onsite toilets. They include pads, tampons, period pants, and booklets relating to periods. Read more about it here.


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