Let It Bleed: A People’s History Of Menstruation

Published March 1, 2015
Updated September 9, 2016

Coping Mechanisms

Tampons

LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

Enough with the crazy talk—how have women coped over the years. Obviously, there was once a time before Tampax, right? How did Queen Elizabeth deal with the issue, or Cleopatra, or Marie Antoinette?

It turns out that historically, women’s options for that time of the month that ranged from “nonexistent” to “horrifying.” Egyptian women–whose menses were supposed to be magical, remember–may have invented the tampon. Of course, this wouldn’t be the ancient world if those tampons were soft and absorbent and sterile, so naturally they were made from papyrus, which has a consistency similar to hemp rope.

Granted, the papyrus was first “softened” by soaking it in the Nile—which was also the place where last month’s tampons were dumped with the rest of the raw sewage, so we’re not talking about hygienic operating conditions here.

The ancient Greeks, not content with mere Egyptian levels of discomfort and infection, wrapped cotton lint around splinters of wood and used those. If this sounds like they took a long time to make, you’re right, which is probably why they reused them month after month. Roman women, hailing from a more practical and pastoral society, used wool, which was probably even less comfortable than it sounds.

Menstruation History Roman Woman

“Dear Diary: Life is still horrible.” Source: University of Cambridge

Throughout the Middle Ages, European women were temporarily relieved of the “civilized” approach of inserting random bits of fiber into their vaginas to stop their blood flow. Free bleeding doesn’t seem to have been an issue for Europeans, because nobody can be found in the literature of the time complaining about it. Of course, most of the literate people in Medieval Europe were celibate monks, so we’re back to that problem again.

Simply bleeding into your clothes seems to have been remarkably popular, since the practice lasted over a thousand years. Laura Klosterman Kidd, who is something of the go-to expert in this subject, reviewed 17 pioneer women’s diaries, as well as the inventories of various wagon trains and the letters experienced women wrote back East with advice on what to pack for the trip, and found not a single reference to any kind of period-management technology, which suggests all the girls from Little House on the Prairie were totally bleeding all over the place.

Here’s a German doctor on the matter in 1899:

‘It is completely disgusting to bleed into your chemise, and wearing that same chemise for four to eight days can cause infections.’

No need to reread that passage; it concludes with exactly the admonition you think it does.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.