When I saw this ad — “A few short months ago many women heard about Tampax for the first time….” — in Woman’s Home Companion, March, 1937, I was surprised. It was like running into an old friend, and finding that she’s a lot older than you thought.
“The first ad [for Tampax] appeared on Sunday, July 26, 1936, in the American Weekly. A Sunday supplement that was inserted in many major newspapers, it claimed the greatest circulation in the world, some 11 million buyers.”– Tampax history
I realize that discussing women’s sanitary needs is still not comfortable for many of us. However, now that the discussion of sales taxes on sanitary products is in the news, we are going to have to get comfortable discussing a normal function which about 51% of the world’s population experiences at regular intervals for approximately half of their lives.
I’m not sure which college dormitory friend coached me through my first use of a tampon from an adjoining bathroom stall — but I owe her a big “thank you!” In the sixties, if you found yourself in need of sanitary protection while visiting a friend’s house, and you asked her “if she had something,” she would usually ask your preference: “Mattress or plug?” — our way of classifying pads and tampons. But, until 1936, there was no choice.
Even before Tampax, vintage ads for Kotex and Modess pads were very discrete, lest young minds learn too soon about “feminine secrets.”
The ads often featured women in slinky white dresses — or engaging in active sports while wearing white sportswear.
When I learned about menstruation in the Girl Scouts, and again in the classroom (“girls only” for that “special” movie or filmstrip,) only external pads were mentioned. Until then (roughly 1954) my friends and I had been so puzzled by what came out of the dispenser in the ladies’ room at the VFW post that we once used some of our candy money to find out what came out of the dispenser. (Our parents were playing Bingo.) What we got was a box. We opened the box. It seemed to be full of white packing material, so we pulled it apart, and found nothing inside. (No Cracker Jack toy!) At this point, a grown up lady whom we did not know found us, accused us of being “filthy” little girls, and reported to our folks that we had been caught doing something nasty in the restroom. We remained bewildered. Why would you pay money for a box with nothing in it? The stuff in the box was clean and white, if not very interesting. So why was it “dirty” and “disgusting?”
In western society, women were (and as far as I know, still are) not eager to broadcast the fact that they are menstruating. And we still worry about “leaks” — nobody wants to leave a bloodstain on the upholstery. So, many ads emphasized “safety.”
Young women who have never known a sanitary pad that didn’t adhere to the crotch of a normal pair of panties may not understand the constant emphasis on “absolute invisibility.” “Even the sheerest dress, the closest-fitting gown, reveals no tell-tale lines or wrinkles.” “The rounded ends of Kotex are flattened and tapered to provide absolute invisibility.” And let’s not forget those “Phantomized ends.”
Consider the text of that early Tampax ad:
That’s right — in the 20th century, before Tampax, a bulky pad had to be safety-pinned to an elastic belt. At each end of the pad was several inches of the wrapping material, without padding. This was pinned to the belt (in the 1920’s) or pulled through the celluloid or plastic device on the belt (in the 1930’s and for decades after), then folded back on itself, which made a lump fore and aft.
Obviously, clinging silk dresses or knits would reveal bulges. ” ‘I warn women when they have gowns fitted,’ says a famous Modiste:’ ”
“Why worry about summertime protection? You can wear Modess under your sheerest dresses with an easy feeling of perfect safety — perfect comfort. The softly fluffed filler is cool and evenly absorbent. Modess will never be conspicuous, because the edges and corners are carefully rounded and it smoothly fits to the figure. It is deodorant — easily disposable.”
It can’t have been easy writing ad copy for a product that couldn’t be pictured, and whose purpose could only be hinted at. Here, a woman sits nervously while people in the background seem to be making fun of her.
“What is this woman afraid of? Often a haunting fear spoils good times. But now — women can say goodbye to all that!”
In the second picture, thanks to Modess, she is playing golf in a white dress — with no fear of embarrassment.
In another ad, women ride bicycles while wearing pale-colored (probably white) dresses. White emphasized the “safety” from leaks and the sanitary”/”hospital cleanliness” of disposable pads. (And disposable pads were a a lot more pleasant than earlier home-made pads of folded fabric which had to be boiled clean after every use….)
Nurses often appeared in ads for sanitary products, although images of the finished product itself were hard to find in popular magazines. (Images from the factory production line were acceptable.)
What really amazed me as I collected these images was the difference between close-fitting “sanitary protection” underwear and normal ladies’ underpants. Whether you call them “knickers,” or “bloomers,” or “combinations” these variations on women’s underpants from 1924-1925 are long and bulky:
And yet, this is a pair of 1924 sanitary bloomers made by Kleinert’s (a company that also made underarm shields and baby pants — all products which used rubber as well as cloth.)
By 1936, close-fitting women’s briefs as we now know them were finally appearing:
But by then, Kleinert’s was selling what we would call a “French cut brief” for sanitary protection :
Kleinert’s knew how to make a pair of briefs that fit close to the body in 1924. But women didn’t get used to wearing sleek, close-fitting undies — except for long johns — for quite a while.
Apparently air circulation around “the privates” was preferred — at least, for most days of the month.
And the acceptance of internally worn sanitary products “even for unmarried girls” also had to overcome considerable prejudice in the thirties and later. (So did the use of anesthetics during childbirth, but we got over that, too….)
Sadly, some of the “ingredients” put into tampons — fragrances, synthetic materials, etc. — during the 1970’s and 1980’s caused fatal infections in some women. (Back in the 1930’s cellulosic materials –i.e., rayon, or plant based– were used in external pads, but they turned out to be a bad idea in tampons.) It turns out that 75% of cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome were related to one specific brand of tampon: Rely. It was withdrawn from the market.
There is an excellent history of the tampon in the Atlantic magazine which discusses toxic shock syndrome [TSS], ingredients that caused it, and legislation concerning tampons. In 2015, Representative Carolyn Maloney introduced a bill regarding independent testing of the safety and ingredients of tampons, with oversight by the FDA. The Atlantic gave it just a 2% chance of passing in Congress. In May of 2016, 40 states still charged sales tax on tampons, as if they were a not a necessity for women, but something we could easily do without. (Unlike candy, or potato chips….)
Here’s a possibly relevant fact: “When Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, NASA engineers asked her whether 100 tampons would be enough for her weeklong journey on the space shuttle Challenger—arguably helping cement the tampon’s reputation as both a fixture of modern womanhood and a complete mystery to men.” [My italics] — Ashley Fetters, writing in The Atlantic. (A magazine which, as it happens, used to be called The Atlantic Monthly.)
Anyway, “Happy Belated 80th Birthday” to Tampax — a product that made my life a lot more pleasant.
12 responses to “Sanitary Protection: Tampax Introduced 80 Years Ago”
So interesting! I never thought about when tampons came on the market. As a teenager in the 50s i used them, i think most of my friends did. But i think not when we were 12 or 13, only when we were a couple of years older. My mother had stories about cloth diaper sort of things that had to be washed, ugh.
This is a fascinating and well researched article. I really found the discussion on knicker types very interesting too. Some of the younger generation are using “mooncups” and washable sanitary pads as an alternative to tampons – fearing the health and environmental impacts.
Thank you — I don’t have daughters or grand-daughters to keep me up to date. Among those 1930s ads for Tampax, I also found an ad for Chux disposable diapers — Another seemingly wonderful idea with unforeseen environmental consequences…. which could also be said for automobiles and computers….
What an interesting historical topic. I was fascinated to learn about ads for different kinds of straps in Sears–but of course, there would have to be if the Sears catalog was to keep up its reputation as providing everything a family would need. And here is one unsung benefit of aging–no more need for any of these products!
My best friend announced her menopause by saying she was going to throw a box of Tampax off the Golden Gate Bridge to celebrate. (She was joking.)
There have been great advancements in feminine hygiene the past 80 years.
Have you checked out the Museum of Menstruation? http://mum.org/ It is a great resource and quite fascinating.
Thanks for Tampax’s history lesson. What a difference tampons have made in the lives of millions of women.
Thank you for this insightful blog post! I love the case you make by dint of suggestion about the changes in undergarment design due to advancements in feminine hygiene. Many of my friends and young women in my generation are trying to break down taboos around periods. After turning thirty, my hormones went through a significant shift and my periods got much heavier: I have had to radically alter my use of feminine hygiene products (I’m constantly leaking) and recently bought a mooncup; several friends of mine also got together in London and we made an order for the new period pants put out by thinx in the US, a politically motivated design company specializing in women’s hygiene products: period proof underwear that protects you from leaks. https://www.shethinx.com/ And I can say, these look great under a white bias gown (even on heavy days)! While advertising language has changed, the company director Miki Agrawal makes a good case for the fact that we have a long way to go in breaking down the taboos around the menstrual cycle.
I didn’t know about thinx, so I watched their videos. The long video is really interesting — definitely worth 14 minutes of my time. https://youtu.be/W-MQyta6aLc
I was shocked by the male New Yorker — a 40ish guy in business shirt and necktie — who thought women’s periods are brought on by stress! Seriously! And the story of AFRIpads is really good news — because girls often miss a week of school with every period because they can’t afford to buy pads — AFRIpads are an inspiring, low cost innovation. The thinx site has several videos about their product.
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“Kotex can’t fail, Kotex can’t show.” Not much it can’t. In the 70s with my extremely heavy first monthlies it did both, all the time. When the adhesive kind came in, they tended to go walkabout whenever you did. My mother and my best friend’s mom both told us that tampons were for married ladies only! We had the notorious, nefarious “sanitary belt” which was extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing for a very young teen, or the awful panties with the clip in the front and the plasticised crotch, which was later pilloried as the cause of many an infection.
I’ll never forget coming home from Spain for a visit in about 1991 and “needing something”…and buying my first box of pads with wings! WHAT was that! I showed it to my mother (born 1924) and she was startled too. They were just getting popular then and TV ads were extremely coy.
Now of course they are all individually wrapped in brightly coloured plastic envelopes, and thin doesn’t mean useless like it used to. TV ads have stepped up to the plate and show exactly how they’re meant to be used.
Is this time to mention “if male inventors used these items…?” I loved a book by Jane Maas called Mad Women — about the advertising agencies of the 1960s. .https://witness2fashion.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/mad-women-the-other-side-of-life-on-madison-avenue-in-the-60s-and-beyond-by-jane-maas/
She noticed that men were in charge of all the advertising for products bought by women…. And was part of changing that.
Flashback to my university days in about 1979…when you didn’t have a TV in your room and there was a TV lounge between the men’s half of the dorm building and the women’s half. Sitting there, and a commercial comes on with a famous Russian gymnast saying, “Every time I come to America, I discover something wonderful. This time I discover (slaps box on table) Stayfree Maxi Pads.” The men in the lounge were far more embarrassed than the women, who fell about laughing!