Weird Things Women Had To Resort To Before Tampons As We Know Them Existed

What did women do before tampons? Roughly half the population has probably used them, excluding those who don’t have access to them or are super scared of toxic shock syndrome. But women have been around for centuries. More than that, they've been around for at least a couple of millennia, right? And the modern tampon as we know it wasn't created until 1929 – at least according to Tampax.

In the early 1930s, a Colorado-based GP named Earle Cleveland Haas patented the first commercial applicator tampon after hearing from a female friend of his that she used a piece of sponge to absorb her menses. Haas, thinking of how convenient it would be for his ballerina wife who found it hard to dance with the diaper-esque menstrual pads of the '30s, sought to solve this special plight of women. And he designed a cotton plug that could be inserted by two cardboard tubes to do just that. After that, Tampax hit the shelves in the mid-1930s.

But, before Dr. Haas sought to make the monthly menses plight a little easier, what did women use before pads and tampons as we know them today? What's the history of tampons? And what are the old ways to manage periods that don't involve having to go and sit in the Biblical period tent and bleed all over the floor until your moon time is over?

  • The Ancient Egyptians Plugged It Up With Papyrus

    The Ancient Egyptians Plugged It Up With Papyrus
    Photo: The Heracles Papyrus / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Papyrus is an old writing material made out of the reed of Papyrus plants, and it was used by the Ancient Egyptians. You've probably had a school project from way back when, where you had to dunk a bit of paper in tea-bag infused water to brown it up and make it look like this ancient paper substitute. It's that stuff. Papyrus was used by the female Egyptians of the 15th century BCE to stem their monthly flow.

    Historical evidence suggests that these women would roll up the relatively soft Papyrus fibers and use them to prevent Carrie from going to prom.    

  • Nothing; Just Bleeding Out

    That's right – sometimes women had to make do with absolutely nothing. That stuff about the period tent is no joke. In BCE Jewish cultures, women's periods grossed the menfolk out so much that they were deemed impure. So the women were sent out to sit by themselves, far away from the men and anything they might get their menses all over. Because if a woman dared to sit or rest on anything while she was on the rag, that thing was considered impure as well. So off to the period tent with you!

    But fast forward a few centuries, and a lot of women were letting it all bleed out without having to run off to the backyard. The women of 1800s Europe who hadn't fashioned their own pads were totally cool with letting their menses run all over their clothes.

  • Ancient Greeks Used Wooden Sticks Covered In Lint

    Ancient Greeks Used Wooden Sticks Covered In Lint
    Photo: גביע האלופות / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Sure seems like the women of ancient Greece weren't too fussed about yeast infections or UTIs. They were more likely worried about dealing with internal splintering. Thrush is bound to be a walk in the park after that. This period-control tidbit came from the widely referenced Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos (a man some say is the "Father of Medicine") who wrote that women living in the 5th century BCE made their tampons out of lint that they wrapped around a bit of light-weight wood. 

  • Early Modern English Women Were Literally 'On The Rag'

    If there are any early modern menstrual records, they're few and far between. Which means a lot of scholars that want to examine exactly how ladies coped when their ovaries ranneth over are left to speculate. One such scholar, Dr. Sara Read did a deep dive into this subject and found that a lot of European women in the Middle Ages were using rags, or "clouts" as they might have called them, from which the term "on the rag" was born.  

  • 1970s Women Used Big Pad Stirrups

    1970s Women Used Big Pad Stirrups
    Photo: Woolnough-Corsetiers / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    If you've ever seen the movie Slums of Beverly Hills, a '70s-set Natasha Lyonne-starring coming-of-age flick, you'll be familiar with what these sanitary belt monstrosities looked like. Resembling a proto-strap on with none of the fun, this bulky-looking belt could not have been conducive to any physical activities. And they were exactly what they sound like: pads hooked to large stirrups attached to a belt. However, what they may have lacked in wearability and comfort, they more than made up for in longevity. Sanitary belts were in wide usage from the late 1800s until the 1970s

  • 4th-Century Indian Woman Were Using Rock Salt, Honey, And Ground Seeds

    4th-Century Indian Woman Were Using Rock Salt, Honey, And Ground Seeds
    Photo: Hubertl / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    This one comes from the 12th-century text Koka Shastra, which recommended using oil and rock salt as a vaginal obstruction – this was also recommended as a form of contraception. Ancient Indians also used honey and ghee as a means of obstruction, and they constructed tampons out of ground ajowan seeds which, like ghee, is a popular ingredient in Indian cooking.