Gauze field dressing made by Southalls (Birmingham) Ltd, 1940. Southalls were using this highly absorbent material to produce sanitary pads in 1880. Gauze field dressing made by Southalls (Birmingham) Ltd, 1940. Southalls were using this highly absorbent material to produce sanitary pads in 1880.

Secret Health: The Hushed History of Women’s Extra Expense

10 min read

In March 2018 Scotland became the first nation in the world to introduce into legislation a scheme that tackles period poverty. Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon’s proposed “Sanitary Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill would create a statutory duty for free provision of sanitary products” for those in need. In honour of this historic event of Scottish firsts, let’s look at the history of sanitary products and the secrecy behind them.

Code Breaking

When avoiding saying the word menstruation, many code phrases have been invented to talk about this taboo subject. Some historic phrases from a 1935 medical book, Every Body’s Family Doctor, are “the courses”, “the periods”, “being unwell”, and “the monthly illness”. It is hidden away and talked about in whispers. I bet you can think of code words you have heard or used.

Sanitary napkins, towels, aprons and pads are all words for the same item. For the sake of clarity the more modern term “pad” will be used here.

Menstruation has been around for as long as women have and will continue to exist. How women have dealt with it along the way has varied. Up to the 1900s if sanitary towels were used, they were of linen, cotton or other textiles that had reached the end of their household use. These towels or cloth pads were pinned into the petticoat or undergarments, such as the bloomers below, washed and reused at home. This is where the code phrase “on the rag” comes from.

Drawers came into women’s wardrobes in the early 1800s as a necessity for warmth and embarrassing accidents. Open-crotch drawers made out of light weight fabric started to be used in the 1840s by the middle class. These drawers were two leg segments attached to a waistband with an open seam extended below the waistband, front to back, exposing inner thighs and more.

It wasn’t until the 1900s that athletic-wear bloomers and closed-crotched drawers became more popular. Open drawers were a necessity for easily dealing with bodily waste while wearing rigid 1800s corsets but as fashions changed so did the drawers. The rise in closed-crotch drawers coincided with fashions such as shorter dress hemlines, 1900s styled corsets and girdles, and post-war acceptance of women wearing trousers.

Eureka Moment

The invention of the disposable pad came from a First World War nurse’s observation that the new cotton padding for soldiers’ wounds was highly effective in soaking up blood. Christina Revie from Airdrie was a British Red Cross volunteer during the war. She treated the wounded and had likely worked with the new bandages.

Southalls’ wartime field dressing includes instructions on how to use the gauze: “Keeping the bandage taut, apply the gauze pad to the wound and fix the bandage. In case of head wounds when respirators have to be worn, care should be taken to adjust the pad so that it does not interfere with the fit of the facepiece. Do not handle the Gauze or wound.”

The First Disposable Pads

After the war, companies such as Southalls (Southall Bros and Barclay) of Birmingham and America’s Kimberly-Clark (Kotex) transformed from manufacturing this super absorbent wood pulp (Cellucotton) material for bandages to include sanitary pads. Southalls’ disposable pads were the first on the market in the late 1880s, followed by brands such as Hartmann, Mosana, and Mene (Menex).

These pads were made of a fibrous wool rectangle covered with an absorbent layer. Some were fit with loops for a special girdle or belt worn underneath the undergarments or were pinned in. According to Betty Hepburn (She Was Aye Workin’ by Clark & Carnegie) it was “. . . posh when you bought them with loops on the end.

Southalls made these blue packaged “Celtex” pads, which fit through a ring attachment. The “Celtex” name may stand for cellucotton texture in the same way that Kotex was named after cotton texture. The “Celtex” packaging is minimalistic without any reference to what it contains to avoid embarrassment. This nondescript packaging was common in stores or through mail-order packages.

The teal packaged sanitary pads are the kind that were made with a long bandage ends and a string attachment to be worn with a corresponding sanitary belt. Not only has the name of what is inside emblazoned on the teal wrapper but it also states that it is the “ORIGINAL SANITARY TOWEL” and “INVENTED 1880”. Could this be referencing an industry dispute on who created the first disposable pad?

The Nikini is a sanitary garment from the 1970s made by Robinsons of Chesterfield in England. They are “designed to hold Nikini [disposable] pads” and are washable with an adjustable waistband. The company originally patented and manufactured Gamgee tissue, a surgical dressing invented by Dr. Joseph Sampson Gamgee in Birmingham, England in 1880. Robinsons of Chesterfield also filed the world’s first patient for the “sanitary towel” in 1885.

Fun FactThere is a theory that this cotton wool is the muse for the name of J. R. R. Tolkien’s character, Samwise Gamgee

Later inventions like the Nikini and other step-in briefs as well as the adhesive strips revolutionized beltless sanitary pads and efficiency for women. By the 1980s the belted pad quickly disappeared.

On Doctors’ Recommendation

The importance of personal hygiene and sanitary conditions was getting more attention in the late 1800s. Scotland passed the Local Government Act in 1889, in which public health affairs became more organised, and appointed local medical officers of health.

Some women who wore undergarment aprons or nothing at all didn’t trust the idea of wearing something so close to their body for the whole day. To encourage the buying of disposable pads and combat personal resistance, health benefits of using the pads were emphasised as well as the lack of washing that the disposable items required. These health benefits and medical recommendations were used as the main selling point for advertisements and packaging. On the teal Southall’s package “APPROVED BY THE MOST EMINENT MEMBERS OF THE MEDICAL PROFESSION” is stamped underneath its label.

An advertisement for Southall Sanitary Towels in the Paisley & Renfrewshire Gazette from Saturday, 10th April 1886 reads:

SPECIAL TO LADIES. SOUTHALL’S. A desideratum of the highest importance for health and comfort. Increased cleanliness. Less liability to chill. Diminution of risks of disease. No washing. TOWELS Convenience in traveling- – Sample packet of 1 dozen Towels”

By the 1960s the beneficial characteristics advertised are no longer focused on the cleanliness of the item but the “comfort, convenience and protection” as seen on the 1960s Nikini packaging.

Questionable Tips From Doctors 1904-1935:

The [menstrual] pain will be relieved by some preparation of opium or other similar soothing drug.”

Much standing, stooping, or prolonged sitting is to be avoided. As to medicines it is impossible to state with every case, but tonics belong to the kind required. Iron and arsenic are particularly valuable.”

The Household Physician, Vol.1, 1904

Hot baths had better be avoided as they tend to increase the natural rate of discharge.”

Disorders of menstruation are in many cases to be attributed to this habit of tight-lacing.”

The Modern Physician, Vol.V, 1911

It may be as well to take a little extra care to avoid chills and over-tiredness.”

Cold baths are better done without and sea bathing should be missed for a few days.

Every Body’s Family Doctor, 1935

Confinement Survival Supplies 

In 1917 Lanarkshire’s first maternity hospital opened in Bellshill and had the world’s first obstetric flying squad. Maternity services were advancing in Lanarkshire and midwives were busy making house calls and helping prepare women for childbirth and after. A standard item in midwives’ kits was an ear trumpet that was pressed against the pregnant woman’s abdomen to listen to the heartbeat.

Women were advised to stay in bed after childbirth for at least 10 days with visitors at a minimum excepting the midwife for a “Period of Confinement” or “Lying-in Period”. How well women who were in charge of all the families’ meals, laundry, shopping, cleaning, and so on, abided by those rules is uncertain. Midwifery services through the Burgh of Airdrie provided maternity packs that included pads in the 1950s. Before government-sponsored healthcare, women were expected to buy the items on their own.

Off To The Shop

Drapers and Clothiers, Chemists and Co-ops generally where sanitary pads were sold by the 1920s. How to display these items was a touchy subject. According to a Kimberly-Clark employee, Syd Emerson:

In the early days, consumer advertising and in-store displays produced rather unfavourable reaction on the part of the female population which resulted in our receiving numerous letters complaining of the embarrassment caused.”

In response to the discomfiture of asking the salesmen for sanitary pads, many shops started to employ more saleswomen by 1939. The Hugh Neilson, Draper Clothier Shop in Airdrie may never have had this problem with three female workers in the shop.

Don’t Get So Hysterical

Local shops also sold “brain tonics” or cure-all nerve tonics that were advertised for women with hysteria as well as for children and men. Hysteria was described as a women’s nervous condition diagnosed through heightened mental and emotional distress and movement or “wandering” of the uterus.

The labelling of hysteria arose due to a confusion of basic female sexual desire, coupled with societal restrictions of the day, creating a non-existent disease to explain femininity that doctors did not understand. Hysteria was finally taken off of the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. Nerve tonics sold in stores included Quinine, Phosferine, and Sanatogen. Phosferine tonic wine was advertised to women in the 1950s as a way to treat depression, although this tonic wasn’t bought in a pharmacy.

Other treatments for hysteria around the 1900s focused on the healing properties of vibration through the use of body massagers.  Manual massage or physiotherapy was practiced by physicians in the treatment of hysteria and nervous conditions for men and women between 1880 and 1930 in sanatoriums, medical practices, and a house calls. The use of massagers for hysteria has become infamous but not well documented in what it fully entailed…

These therapeutic vibrators were advertised as remedies for conditions ranging from anaemia to paralysis and later a beauty aid in maintaining healthy condition of the skin and promoting correct circulation. As homes became electrified, these items could be used individually without a doctor’s visit.

Mail Order

Mail order catalogues were a way that smaller communities could have access to a larger selection of goods and also sidestepped local shops’ prices, inflated due to a lack of competition. Women in North Lanarkshire had the option of ordering pads discreetly through Dallas’s catalogue. Dallas & Co was a Glasgow company created in 1865. By 1908 it was a firmly established mail order business with an extensive list of items sold around the British Empire. Dallas’s department store was called Milton House, located at 166-170 Cowcaddens Road, Glasgow.

In the Dallas’s price list catalogue the “Ladies Sanitary Towels” are not found with the undergarment section or in toiletries but in the infants’ section. Perhaps it was more common to buy sanitary pads when placing an order for “period of confinement” items.

To Buy or Not to Buy

Even though disposable sanitary pads were widely available by the 1920s they were still an expense that many women could not afford. 

Industrial Family Income Compared to the Price of Sanitary Pads

  1913-1915 1933-1935
Price of Pads 2 shillings (£0.10) 1 shilling 6 pence (£0.05)
Average Weekly Household Income 32 shillings (£1.60)* 27 shilling 3 pence (£1.21)**
Percent of Income to Buy Pads 6.25% 4.13%

*From Mary Laird’s statement before the Royal Commission of weekly budget for a family of five, 1913 and **An Economic History of Scotland, 1100-1939 by Lythe & Butt

Joan Williamson, born in 1924, recollects some confusion around the terminology and price of pads in She Was Aye Workin’ by Clark & Carnegie:

I was at a Tollcross School [in Edinburgh] and the teacher used to get me to give messages to the shops across the road sometimes. And at one time in particular she gave me this money. I remember she gave me two shillings and it was for a packet of twelve towels and I said ‘What, twelve  towels for this amount of money?’ And I went home to my mother: ‘Miss Low sent me for a message today, Mum, and she got twelve towels for I think it was one and tuppence [1s 2d]. And she said ‘Twelve towels for only one and tuppence – I must go and get some!’ She thought I meant towels for drying yourself.”

By 1941 there was a shortage of sanitary pads due to British factories focusing production on war specific items. The shortage was so great that many women did not report to work on days in which the pads were needed. The problem became so serious that the House of 14 Commons and the Government decided to purchase more from abroad. By 1942 the Association of Sanitary Towel Manufacturers was formed to assist the Government in British production and distribution.

Not having the resources to provide for personal healthcare is a problem that has lasted into the present day. Just as the women in factories missed paid workdays in the 1940s, women and girls today miss school and work because they cannot afford the extra expense of pads.

To read more about the research on period poverty and its stigma in the UK follow the links:

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