Survival Update

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How Humans Survived Before: Feminine Hygiene Products

When the apocalypse finally comes, it’s the little things society will miss the most – the things we take for granted. 

People will survive without Netflix and Uber, but what about basics like zip-lock bags, garbage pick-up, hot water, tape, antibiotics, washing machines, and feminine hygiene products?

In this series, we take a step back in time to understand what life was like before the invention of some of the products we take for granted every day.


Disposable pads and tampons became mainstream during the 1960s and 1970s. Before that, women used a variety of uncomfortable materials to absorb menstrual blood.

The earliest methods involved natural materials such as: 

    Rabbit fur

    Sheep’s wool

    Buffalo skin

    Grass, sand, or moss wrapped in cloth

    Sea sponges


In the not-so-distant past, women pinned wads of flannel or cotton inside their bloomers, wore rubber barriers, or decided to let their clothing absorb the blood.

These methods may seem unthinkable to the modern woman, but it’s important to note that menstrual bleeding wasn’t always as common as it is today.

According to historians, women in the past started bleeding later in life and spent more time without periods.

“If you’re pregnant multiple times, you’re not having your period, and if you’re lactating multiple times you’re not having your period,” explains Sharra Vostral, author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. “If you have five or six kids, that’s ten years of your menstrual life.”

The Disposable Pad

The first disposable pads were invented in France when nurses working in war zones used wood pulp bandages to stop excessive bleeding. Wood pulp was easy to come by, absorbent, and cheap enough to throw away.

Commercial manufacturers picked up on the idea and started producing disposable pads for women in the late 1880’s.

The first products were long, thick strips of cotton designed to fit through loops in a special belt worn beneath the undergarments. The pads were notorious for slipping out of place.

In the early 1900’s, Kotex switched from cotton to the more-absorbent cellulose (used as bandages during WWI).

To help women who were too shy to ask for pads at the store, Kotex encouraged cashiers to leave its products on the counter along with a box where customers could drop their money.

Stayfree introduced the adhesive strip in 1969 just as disposable feminine hygiene products became mainstream. The sticky strip kept pads in place and eliminated the need to wear a belt.

The Modern Tampon

The first tampon was invented in 1921 by a man named Earle Hass. Believing his product would never be popular, he sold the patent in 1933 to Gertrude Tendrich – future founder of the company Tampax.

When they were first introduced, tampons were advertised for married women only because some people believed you could lose your virginity by using a tampon.

As feminine hygiene products continued to improve, the stigma surrounding periods and menstrual products started to decline. By 1980, an estimated 70% of women were using tampons.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and disposable pads and tampons are available in every convenience store, gas station, and supermarket. You can even find them in public restrooms.

As a woman, I am more than thankful for this convenience.

My advice for a future without disposable pads and tampons: stock up on rags and dry grass, but don’t bother with the belt.