A History of Menstruation

An academic summary of thoughts in the history of menstruation: PERIODS? EW!

That is not a flippant comment. For literally thousands of years menstruation has been considered disgusting, unclean and generally incredibly gross and not something to be talked about. This is why the first adverts to show sanitary products being tested with red liquid instead of blue only arrived on TV a few years ago.

In the bible, which shaped day-to-day lives, menstruation is described as filthy and unclean, spiritually polluted. In Leviticus 15:19-33*, it says that a woman on her period should be isolated for 7 days (oddly specific considering menstrual cycles vary from person to person but hey ho that’s male writers for you). It also says that anything she sits on is unclean, anything she’s slept on is unclean, anything she’s worn, or touched (including people) are unclean yada yada yada. The French believed that period sex could lead to monsters being born, but generally, understanding of menstruation wasn’t linked to ovulation and conception at all.

Long story short, menstrual bleeding is not only gross, it’s also kind of dangerous.

*I hope I’ve written that correctly, I don’t understand bible verse referencing at all

As time passed, concerns around periods became more medicalised. However, I am highly sceptical about 19th century doctors’ understanding of menstruation, based on Dr Denman’s observations in 1805 that a menstruating woman was also “liable” to bleed from all sorts of body parts, including (but not limited to) the eyes, breasts and navel. Menstruation was often linked to madness, especially if you bled heavily. In 1811, one Dr. John Burns announced that menstruation was in fact a disease. It was thought that heavy bleeding was dangerous, and the best “cure” or aid for this was opiates/complete sedation, physical restrictions and purging.

It’s unsurprising, really, that it’s hard to find menstruation in the sources, when it was such a taboo subject. There may be coded references that haven’t been picked up on – for instance, Queen Anne used to refer to her period as “Lady Charlotte” in her letters to her friend Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough – but lets face it, people are squeamish about it now and we don’t generally think it’s a sign of madness or spiritual pollution.

So how were periods dealt with?

Well, the first thing to bear in mind, is that although the age of puberty and onset of periods is pretty similar, for the most part, you’d have had less periods in your life. Poor nutrition and physically demanding work means less body fat, which is needed for healthy menstruation, while successive pregnancies, longer times of breastfeeding and earlier onset of menopause would have also meant that the period of your life where you’d menstruate is drastically reduced.

There seems to be an assumption that homemade versions of modern sanitary towels and tampons were used, but there’s actually not really any evidence to prove this. “Clouts”, which were essentially a wodge of fabric, possibly linen as it was absorbent and available, were probably used, but they weren’t necessarily neat little pads that were stuck in. Especially as knickers weren’t a thing. They could have been tucked or pinned into your girdle, but the truth is, we don’t really know.

Although there is some references to sponges, it seems that this actually might have been a tool for sex workers to stop bleeding for their clients – as one poem says, to prevent the client from getting a “bloody nose”. It’s pretty unlikely that they would have fashioned their own, early “tampons”, seeing as internal methods were considered bad for your health.

In reality, its highly probably that clouts were used if the flow was particularly heavy, but otherwise it was probably perfectly normal to bleed onto your clothes. This might sound a bit grim to us now, but practically speaking, makes sense.

Bloody Mary: Queen Mary I suffered with awful period pains, which would have been seen as punishment for women’s innate sinfulness.

As we move into the Georgian and Victorian periods, we can see some development in menstruation products, although up until 1852 there are still instances of women telling doctors they just took the precaution of wearing a thicker petticoat, so that it wouldn’t stain their skirts. In 1847 we can find references to “plugs” which are early forms of tampon, made of linen rag, cotton or sponge made up into a ball and inserted. There was also experimentation with reusable nappy-type items, “elastic doily belts”, which was a silk and elastic belt that you could attach a pad to, period pants that were made of rubber, or just pieces of rubber that you wear over your bum, between your bloomers and skirt to create a protective barrier. All, I’m sure you’d agree, delightful sounding.

The main take-aways here are that none of these sound particularly great alternatives to just letting yourself bleed on your petticoats, and also how these are all focused on not staining clothes of having any visible sign of bleeding, rather than comfort for those wearing them.

It wasn’t until 1896, with Lister’s Towels, that we can see the first disposable sanitary towels available for purchase. They were actually designed as part of a maternity kit to help with bleeding post-childbirth, but those using them quickly realised that they were also ideal for periods. GREAT NEWS! you might think, chucking away your rubber pants and grabbing your purse – except because the taboos around menstruation were so great, customers didn’t want to be seen buying them. So you end up back at where we were at the start – feeling shamed by society and dirty. After all, like the men said – PERIODS? EW!

If you enjoyed this, why not check out these?

Attitudes to Queer Female Sex

A History of Sex Work: “Common Prostitutes”

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7 thoughts on “A History of Menstruation

  1. Such an interesting article, thank you! It’s such a fundamental part of every day (month?) life for women and I’ve wondered in the past how women, especially those from lower classes or status, coped.
    I’m not sure that they would have just allowed themselves to free flow though – many poorer women might have only had one skirt or dress, so allowing staining (so needing to wash their clothes frequently) would have severely reduced their ability to keep on working or caring for their families.
    Also, blood stains are a mare to get rid of – unless staining was absolutely not taboo, then most women wouldn’t have wanted to add to their wash day blues more than necessary. 🙂
    PF Chisholm mentions this in her book ‘A Season of Knives’, set in the 16thC Scottish Borders – it’s agreed that a woman wouldn’t have murdered her husband in his bed as she wouldn’t have wanted to deal with the blood stains!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah thanks for the lovely comment! I know, it’s something I’ve wondered for ages, and there’s actually not loads of research on it. (Shocker haha). I was thinking about the free flow, especially as women were on their feet for a lot of the time so I guess it would leave less marks on the dress? 🤔 haha I love the consideration of not wanting to deal with the stains – I did half- read something about a case where a woman had bundled up some bloody clothes (I think actually after killing her husband actually) and when her rooms were searched she told the men that that was basically just her menstruated-on clothes…and they bought it

      Like

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