Welcome This New Day For Womanhood
Tampons in American History
Sarah Kowalski, December 1999
The earliest commercial tampons were introduced in the United States around the late 1920's or early 1930's1, some forty years after commercial pads had been introduced2. When I told this to a friend of mine, she seemed surprised that they had been around so long. "I would have thought they were invented in the Forties, during the war or something," she said. Two other friends were shocked. "You're kidding! I thought they were invented in the Fifties." Most of us probably haven't given the invention of tampons much thought at all. Tampons are so commonplace in the lives of most women that we rarely stop to question their history.
Unlike menstrual pads, which have gone through an elaborate evolution over their hundred or so years of commercial production, tampons have remained pretty much the same. While pads went from reusable rags to disposable cotton worn attached to a belt, from bulky rectangular sponge-like things to ultra-thins with wings, tampons have always been wads of cotton or rayon fibers attached to a cord and sometimes inserted with an applicator of one variety or another. Details change, but the concept has remained very much the same since the 1930's or so when tampons were invented. This evolution of pads may remind people of the fact that they have a history: it is only within the last generation that self-stick pads were invented. Our mothers used pads attached to belts or pins. The tampons our mothers used when they were young, though, were likely very similar to the ones we use now.
In a very basic way, women seem more aware of the history of menstrual pads than that of tampons. Most people understand that there was a time when women used rags to catch their menstrual blood, instead of the disposable products we have today. Tampons are usually viewed as a wholly new invention, however. The official Tampax history webpage contradicts this belief, suggesting that tampons, in one form or another, have been around since practically the dawn of time
The ancient Egyptians fashioned disposable tampons from softened papyrus. The Greek physician Hippocrates, writing in the fifth century B.C., described another type of tampon, which was made of lint wrapped around lightweight wood. Elsewhere, women improvised from the materials at hand: in Rome, it was wool; in Japan, paper; in Indonesia, vegetable fibers; in Equatorial Africa, rolls of grass.3
The sources for all this information are not discussed. Nor does the Tampax page mention, in its history of early tampons, the fact that there were other brands which sold commercial tampons before Tampax did. What it does proudly proclaim, though, is the fact that Tampax was the first tampon to be sold with an applicator.
Several brands of tampons were around in the late 1920's and early 1930's before Tampax was introduced in 1936. Which one came first is not really known, though Fax seems like a likely candidate. The Fax tampon, rather than being removed by a string, was covered in a layer of gauze which the woman twisted and used for removal of the tampon. This unusual removal method is one of the things that makes it seem as though Fax was introduced before the other tampons of around the same time which had strings for removal.4 None of these early varieties of tampons-- Fax, Holly-Pax, Moderne Woman, and Nunaps, to name a few-- had applicators until Tampax.5
The idea for the telescoping cardboard tube applicator tampon was developed in the early 1930's, by Dr. Earle C. Haas of Denver, Colorado. He filed his first patent application for a version of this device in 1931. Soon after, he registered the name Tampax as a trademark, explaining that "it was a coined term which [he] put together from the word tampon and vaginal pack." In 1934, Haas's patents were purchased by a group of investors and the Tampax Sales Corporation was born.6 The most important function of this corporation would be to figure out how best to market Tampax to a generation of women who were largely unfamiliar with the concept of tampons.
In some ways, the advertisements for tampons in the 1930's and 1940's were unique, due to the fact that they were designed to market a new product which consumers might not be familiar with. A central theme in some of these early ads was the approval of the medical community. The first Tampax ad, which appeared in The American Weekly on July 26, 1936, proclaims that: "Your doctor will be the first to tell you that Tampax is the most natural and the most hygienic method of sanitary protection... accepted for advertising by the American Medical Association."7 As Karen Houppert points out in her 1999 book The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation, this didn't mean that Tampax was actually "approved or endorsed by the AMA; it only appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association as a paid advertisement."8 Still, the association in women's minds of Tampax with hygiene, as sanctioned by the medical community, was what mattered.
An article published in 1945 in Consumer Reports titled "Tampons as Menstrual Guards" provided another important source of medical approval for the use of tampons. Written by Dr. Robert L. Dickinson and originally published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, this article is a point by point argument in favor of the use of tampons. One of the most interesting aspects of the article is the list of statistics about tampon use which Dickinson includes. At the point when he wrote the article, tampon use was about 10% that of commercial napkin use, but was increasing: "A continuous survey of 749 drug stores finds an increase [in tampon use] all over the country, with 1943 sales about five times those of 1936."9 This statistic is impressive, because it means that in only the first seven years after Tampax was introduced, sales multiplied considerably. Dickinson also includes statistics as to the percentage of women who used tampons, finding that about one-fourth of American women used them in this time period.
Dickinson also points out a number of "objections to pads" at the beginning of his article, including the statements that they may cause irritation and promote contamination, increase the formation of odor, appear too bulky under the clothing, create too much waste, and finally, that the wearing of pads "is responsible for rhythmic play of pressure against surfaces uniquely alert to erotic feeling."10 This last concern was probably brought up in reaction to certain religious and moral critiques of tampons which claimed that women would be sexually stimulated by the wearing of tampons.11
Though there is no longer a large public outcry against the use of tampons for this reason, the related question of whether a girl can lose her virginity by using tampons still persists. As late as 1990, Tampax was running ads to counteract this belief. The headline of the 1990 ad reads, "'Are you sure I9ll still be a virgin?'" The photograph shows two girls, and the premise is that the ad is a testimonial from a teenage girl who was worried about losing her virginity by using tampons, and so asked her friend to give her the facts ("Her mom is a nurse so I figured she'd know"). The answer? "She told me she'd been using Petal Soft Plastic Applicator Tampax tampons since her first period and she's a virgin. In fact, you can use them at any age and still be a virgin."12 Similarly, a 1994 "Sex & Body" column in Seventeen magazine answers a reader who writes in wondering whether using tampons means losing her virginity: "A virgin is someone who has never had sexual intercourse. Period."13 In this only slightly updated form, we can see the issues addressed in the Dickinson report still circulating in tampon ads.
Along these lines, although medical approval in general is no longer the selling strategy used by tampon marketers, many of these specific points which Dickinson brings up are still important in more modern tampon ads. The claim that pads produce too much waste, for example, takes on a whole new significance in our modern culture which pays lip-service to recycling and environmentalism. Indeed, in 1991, a Tampax ad sets the product up as "environmentally friendly. 'Think green,' it urges... reminding women that the applicator is biodegradable."14 The issue that tampons prevent odor is also a selling point in certain ads throughout the years. But it is the statement that pads look bulky under tight-fitting clothes that is at the heart of many tampon advertisements.
A 1972 testimonial-style ad for Pursettes brand tampons in Seventeen magazine has a girl named Carol enthusiastically thanking the makers of Pursettes. I include this passage from the ad because of the prototypical selling-points of tampons which it brings up: the assuaged fear of losing one's virginity, the issue of tampons not showing under revealing clothing, and a general sense of athleticism which is common in many menstrual product ads:
Dear Sirs, I want to thank you so much for sending me my free Pursettes Purse Container and Pursettes. You see, I tried tampons before, but they were so big and bulky, I was afraid I might break a membrane or something.... But I skate (roller) in competition, and believe me those short skirts & form fitting tights can really make you self-conscious! And who can afford to lose even one day of practice before State Meet? Luckily, your tampons came just in time!15
These same themes are echoed in other examples from this series of testimonial-style Pursettes ads. A slightly later series of Pursettes ads are cartoon comic strips, each of which depicts a reason to try tampons instead of pads, and Pursettes tampons over other brands.
A 1975 ad of this cartoon style illustrates perfectly the reasoning that women should use tampons because they prevent the bulkiness of pads, and are invisible even under the tightest or most revealing clothing. This ad's headline is, "I thought my slinky new dress wouldn't make it!" and shows one girl enlightening another as to the advantages of Pursettes:
Girl One: Wearing your slinky new dress to the dance, Sue?
Sue tries the Pursettes, and is the big hit at the dance the next night. This general scenario, which echoes Dickinson's 1945 article, is still being played out in tampon ads.
Girl Two: No way! I just got my period and every outline will show. Sure wish I could use a tampon.
Girl One: Don't tell me you still wear napkins? You should try Pursettes tampons... 16
Not only has the explicit textual content of these ads remained largely the same; many of the visual conventions of these ads seem to have held on since the earliest tampon ads. A 1988 article in Adolescence magazine titled "Imagery Associated with Menstruation in Advertising Targeted to Adolescent Women" discusses some of these conventions. The article focuses on advertisements in "a 25% random sample of Seventeen magazine issues from 1976 to 1986."17 43% of the ads sampled were for tampons. Common themes which the authors found in ads for both pads and tampons were scientific lingo about the construction of the product ("super-absorbent fibers," "capillary absorption action," and the like), and images of athletic, active females engaged in sports. In the tampon ads, this athletic theme often took the form of "negative" images, "describing situations where participation in activities could not occur (because of menstruation) until skill with a tampon was achieved 'was going to swim tomorrow, but....'"18 References to a lack of odor when using tampons, and to the comfort of not having to use pads, were also discussed.
The visual conventions that the authors point to are associated with the look of the female models pictured in these ads. "The women were often wearing white, tight-fitting clothes such as leotards, swimsuits, or shorts. On many occasions the photos provided a clear view of the buttocks and/or perineal area."19 This tendency toward tight white clothes, and its persistence over time, is perfectly illustrated by two ads: an ad for Fax tampons from the late 1920's or early 1930's, and a 1980 ad for Rely tampons. The Fax ad depicts a cartoon line-drawing of a Playboy bunny style bathing beauty wearing a white bathing suit.20 The Rely ad is a photograph of a thin, attractive teenage girl and her boyfriend paddling a motorboat, with the headline, "When the motor conked out, we paddled home. Boy, was I glad I was wearing Rely."21 Not only is the model wearing a white bathing suit her boyfriend is sitting behind her in the boat, staring directly at the place where a stain would appear if she were not wearing Rely.
The textual themes and visual images used in tampon advertising have remained fairly static over the years. Implicit in many of these ads, too, is the underlying theme that menstruation is something to be hidden and ashamed of. Karen Houppert makes this shame about menstruation the central focus of her book The Curse. She begins her book by making the analogy, "Blood is kinda like snot. How come it's not treated that way? People with runny noses do not hide their tissues from colleagues and family members. Young girls do not cringe if a boy spies them buying a box of Kleenex."23 This analogy may not work for everyone,(see note 24) but its point certainly hits home. For something that happens to half of the human population, menstruation seems to be treated with a lot of shame and secrecy. Houppert doesn't blame this shame surrounding menstruation entirely on the menstrual products industry and their ads, but she suggests that they don't do much to counteract it, either.
This issue of menstruation being treated as shameful and secret in ads for menstrual products addresses one of the first questions I had about the early history of tampons when I began my research. I wondered how companies had gone about informing women of their products when these products were commonly viewed as embarrassing and unmentionable. It turns out that largely, the answer was in the question. Menstrual product companies,(or company - see note 25) in their advertising, play upon women's insecurities about their periods in order to convince them to buy the company's products. Worried about odor? Use our deodorant tampon. Worried about leaking? Use our pantiliners along with a tampon to feel safe. Worried about bulky pads showing through your clothes? Or about a boy finding out you have your period by seeing menstrual paraphernalia in your purse? Use our tampons in a handy carrying case, or wrapped in neon colored plastic so that no one will know what they really are.
Instead, we get ad after ad that reaffirms this shame. One of the most blatant of these is a 1974 cartoon ad for Pursettes from Seventeen magazine. It depicts the horrific scene in which a basketball player knocks into a cheerleader, spilling the contents of her purse across the gym floor. She only narrowly avoids the utter embarrassment of having him see a tampon among those contents, which convinces her to switch to Pursettes tampons, since these come in a "neat compact."26 Since the very first ads for menstrual products, this issue of secrecy has been stressed. One dimension of these ads that has shifted slightly, however, is the audience to whom they are being targeted.
When tampons were first advertised, it was in magazines targeted at women, such as Ladies Home Journal. Today though, one rarely sees ads for menstrual products in women's magazines. In Jane, for example, a magazine aimed at women in their 20's and 30's, there are no ads for menstrual products. Instead, these ads are found in magazines aimed at teenage girls, such as Seventeen, YM, and Teen. The reason for this is undoubtedly the belief that young people are more likely not to have formed their consumer habits and brand loyalties yet, and that especially in the area of menstrual products, if you can get a young girl to use a certain brand, she will probably stick with it her whole life. This belief is confirmed by certain unspecified studies which Joan Jacobs Brumberg cites in her 1997 book The Body Project: "We also know, from the reports of market researchers, that when American girls begin to menstruate, their mothers usually introduce them to their favorite brand of sanitary protection and that girls remain loyal to that brand, generally without much experimentation."27
A girl's brand choice must not be entirely mediated by her mother's preferences, however, or else companies would have no reason to advertise to young girls. When in fact, companies exert large efforts into making young girls aware of their existence. Since at least the 1930's, menstrual companies have been sponsoring pamphlets and filmstrips which are shown to girls in school to explain the process of menstruation. Usually these lessons culminate in the passing out of free samples of whatever brand menstrual products sponsored the movie.28 In this way, companies must hope to stimulate brand loyalty in girls from the very moment of their first period.
In a similar, but more recent development, Tampax has introduced a website, www.troom.com, which is part webzine and part advertisement. Troom stands for "Tina's Room," and is aimed at young girls. Tina writes diary entries, tells girls about her taste in music, and also provides them with information about Tampax tampons. But does any of this stuff work? I've been informally interviewing women friends of mine about the topic of brand loyalty when it comes to menstrual products. No one who I talked to could remember what brand had sponsored her menstrual lesson; I know I certainly can't. All I remember is that it wasn't the brand my mom used.
I was interested about to what degree Brumberg's claim that girls use the brand their mother uses holds true, so I asked women to tell me what brands of menstrual products they use now, which they've used in the past, and why they have made any changes that they have. Almost everyone I talked to had made at least one change in the products she uses. Sometimes it was for the reason of a simple perceived difference in quality: one product seemed to work better than another, so she switched. In many cases though, this switch was explained by a desire to use a product that was not just simply better, but safer, or more environmental.
Most of the women I talked to were too young to have experienced the Toxic Shock scare of the early eighties which was associated with Rely tampons, which was a new super-absorbent synthetic brand of tampons which led to the Toxic Shock deaths of thirty-eight women in 1980 alone before it was taken off the market by its manufacturer, Proctor & Gamble.29 I spoke with one woman who is old enough to have used Rely. In fact, she told me, she had just started using it (and been favorably impressed with its absorbency) when the news came out that it was responsible for all these cases of TSS. At that point she stopped using it, and has negative connotations about the brand(see note 30).
When the younger women I talked with discussed changing their menstrual products for safety or environmental reasons, they were more likely to be talking about the link between commercially produced, chlorine-bleached tampons and dioxins. Several had switched to all-cotton tampons, and one woman I spoke with had switched to the Keeper, a washable rubber cup that catches one's menstrual blood and can be used for up to ten years.31 To these women, practical reasoning concerning their health or the health of the environment was more important than brand-loyalty, and articles about tampon safety or menstrual pad waste were more influential in their decisions to change products than was advertising. But most of them did indeed start out using the same brands that their mother used, and only switched when there was a convincing reason to do so.
If all these women approached the consumption of menstrual products in a way not really defined by the menstrual product companies, I wondered, could it be possible that they also managed to avoid feeling the sense of shame and embarrassment about their periods that is so prevalent in ads for these products? At one point in The Curse, Houppert discusses the difference between public/male and private/female spaces when it comes to menstruation. In a 1994 Tampax ad that takes the style of an advice column, a girl writes in that she is embarrassed to take her plastic applicator out of the public bathroom stall at her school to throw it away in the waste basket. The Tampax advice columnist agrees that this sounds embarrassing, and recommends Tampax with flushable cardboard applicators. But, Houppert points out, this ad is going beyond even the normal level of shame associated with menstruation, the women's bathroom "being one of the areas in which women have traditionally gathered to commune with one another."32
It was just last week when I was in the bathroom at the library and an acquaintance came in and asked if anyone had a tampon she could use. I told her that I didn't, but the other woman who was in the bathroom said, "I do. It's downstairs in my backpack. If you wait here, I'll go get it for you." There was no embarrassment in this encounter, just a sense of community. One woman was willing to go get a tampon for a stranger, another woman willing to put her trust in this. If this kind of thing can exist in the women's bathrooms of the world, maybe eventually it can expand outward into the larger community. Perhaps even into the ads in teen magazines.(see note 33)
The history of the tampon in America is one fraught with shame and confusion. This very fact can tell us something about the role of menstruation in the popular discourse. Further study into any of the areas I've touched on -- from teen ads to menstrual booklets to interviews with women about their relationship to menstrual products -- could provide greater insight into any number of issues. Themes of health, cleanliness, sexuality, and women's roles are just some examples of the areas that might be studied through the history of tampons.
I would not have been able to write this paper without the existence of the Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health website, www.mum.org. The Museum of Menstruation, or MUM, is primarily a labor of love on the part of one man, Harry Finley. I first found out about it through an interview with him published in Bust, a feminist zine. For four years, he ran the museum in his basement on weekends. Eventually, the demand got too high and he was forced to close the museum in his home in order to look for a public location. The contents of the museum are on the webpage, however, and it is this collection which has allowed me to discuss the advertising history of tampons.
7. http://www.mum.org/tamad36.htm, also reprinted in The Curse, Karen Houppert, 1999 p.2
8. The Curse, Karen Houppert, 1999 p.16
10. http://www.mum.org/Dickins1.htm and http://www.mum.org/Dickins2.htm
The Curse, Karen Houppert, 1999 p.16
13. "Sex & Body: Tampon Troubles?" Debra Kent, Seventeen Magazine, June 1994 p.84
14. The Curse, Karen Houppert, 1999 p.16
17. "Imagery Associated with Menstruation in Advertising Targeted to Adolescent Women," Havens and Swenson, in Adolescence, Vol.XXIII No.89, Spring 1988 p.89
18. Ibid. p.91 - 92
19. Ibid. p.91
22. http://www.mum.org/tamad36.htm, also reprinted in The Curse, Karen Houppert, 1999 p.2
23. The Curse, Karen Houppert, 1999 p.4
24. In her review of the book for Salon.com, Stephanie Zacharek wonders if Houppert pushes too far in the direction of openness about menstruation: "She almost makes it seem as if women should be ashamed of their reticence about advertising their monthlies, as if feeling that way were proof that they're hopelessly tangled in leftover Victorian mores, when it may be simply that, like many men, most women don't feel the need to share their more intimate bodily functions with the world."
Zacharek's review of The Curse is not negatively affected by this quibble: "But individuals' sense of privacy aside, there is something unsettling about the mantle of secrecy and fussy delicacy that cloaks the subject of menstruation..."
"Red Flag," Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com, April 21 1999. http://www.salon.com/books/feature/1999/04/21/houppert/print.html
25. Or company. Now that Proctor & Gamble controls so much of the market, they alone could have quite an impact if they ever decided to try to change the way people see menstrual products. More on Proctor & Gamble in a later footnote.
26. http://www.mum.org/shame1.htm - definitely go look at this one.
27. The Body Project, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, 1997 p.33
28. Lynn Peril, editor of the zine Mystery Date, wrote an interesting article, whose title, "Growing Up and Liking It: A Primer of Period Pedagogy, 1868 - 1996" is taken from one of these pamphlets. In the article, she explores the content of these pamphlets and movies, and discusses what they can tell us about views on sexuality and women's roles at the time of their writing. This is a broad subject, and one I don't really have time to get into, though it's very much related to consumer history. Her article can be found at http://www.mum.org/growing up.htm, and examples of booklets starting as early as the 19309s can be found in www.mum.org, as well.
29. The Curse, Karen Houppert, 1999 p.29
30. An interesting note concerning Proctor & Gamble and its association with the Rely scandal, is that in 1997 Proctor & Gamble, who make Always pads, purchased Tambrands, the makers of Tampax tampons. Between the two of these industry giants (Always controls the largest percentage of the pad market, Tampax the largest of the tampon market), Proctor & Gamble is now by far the strongest force in the menstrual products industry.
The Curse, Karen Houppert, p.42-46
32. The Curse, Karen Houppert, p.92
33. I did read an article in Adweek about a 1990 Tampax television spot that sounds like a more positive type of ad, which celebrates the history of women over the 54 years since Tampax's invention in 1936. So I don't mean to imply that all current ads for menstrual products draw on shame; just that at this point, too many still do.
"Resurrecting 1970's Feminism," Barbara Lippert, in Adweek, May 21, 1990 p.53
The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation, Karen Houppert. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1999
The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg. Vintage Books, c1997
The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton, Emily Toth. c1976
"Imagery Associated with Menstruation in Advertising Targeted to Adolescent Women," Beverly Havens and Ingrid Swenson, in Adolescence, Vol.XXIII No.89, Spring 1988 pp.89-97
"Growing Up and Liking It: A Primer of Period Pedagogy, 1868-1996," Lynn Peril, in Mystery Date, and at http://www.mum.org/growingup.htm
"Tampons as Menstrual Guards," Dr. Robert L. Dickinson, in Consumer Reports, Sept. 1945 and at http://www.mum.org/Dickins1.htm
"A Visit to the Museum of Menstruation," Nancy E. Young, in The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order, Marcelle Karp and Debbie Stoller, eds. Penguin Group c.1999 p.20-28
"Cry Me A River," Rebecca Zarchikoff. (Article on images in advertising of menstrual products.) at http://kafka.uvic.ca/~rzarchik/emotional.html
"Resurrecting 1970's Feminism," Barbara Lippert, in Adweek, May 21, 1990 p.53
"Sex & Body: Tampon Troubles?" Debra Kent, Seventeen Magazine, June 1994 p.84
"The First Tampon," Tampax official history webpage. at http://www.tampax.com/tambrands/first.html
"Tina's Room," Tampax webzine/advertisement for young girls. at http://www.troom.com
"Red Flag," Stephanie Zacharek, in Salon.com April 21, 1999. at http://www.salon.com/books/feature/1999/04/21/houppert/print.html