A brief history of periods

From a Roman philosopher proclaiming periods as poison to the middle ages belief they could kill men, the history of periods is one we need to discuss!

Ok, so why are we talking about the history of periods? Well, because we don’t. Which when you think about it is kind of wild. After all, periods have been a thing since erm…people. So with that in mind lets delve into the messy and myraid history of periods.

Check out the video here

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Now there is way to much infomation to fit into a ten minute video (trust me I tried!) but luckily there is an amazing sqaud of academics doing research into the history of periods and thier work is definatley a must read. I’ve popped some of my favourites below (plus the works cited in the video):

The Victorian Period: Menstrual Madness in the NineteenthCentury, Kate Lister

The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America Hardcover, Lara Freidenfelds

The Doctors’ Dilemma: Sin, Salvation, and the Menstruai Cycle in Medieval Thought, Charles Wood

Impure Blood: The Menstrual Taboo in the Christian Church During the Thirteenth Century, Madeline F. Ott:

Attides towards menstruation and menstrual blood in Elizabethan England, Bethan Hinderson

The salacious middle ages, Katherine Harvey:

Handbook of Medieval Sexuality,  Vern L. Bullough, James Brundage

Victorian Women and Menstruation, Elaine Showalter and English Showalter:


Quickie: The insane ways women through history had to manage their periods

Ah, the unexpected visit from Aunt Flo and the mad dash to find anything to hold that flow, until you can run to the shops and grab some sanitary towels/tampons/cups. We’ve all been there and it’s the worst.

But imagine if there was no sanitary aisle in the corner shop; no clean and set way to manage your period. Well that was pretty much the case for all of history!

But as those of us with a monthly visit from ‘the decorators’ today have had to MacGyver a loo roll towel when in a pinch, our ancestors  across the centuries have also had to invent new ways to manage their periods.

So lets immerse ourselves in the ingenuous and only slightly traumatic past of period management: 

1. Rags

Yep- the term ‘on the rag’ actually does refer to using rags for sanitary management.

on the rag gif.gif
Yeah, it’s not one we should bring back.

This one dates all the way back to the medieval period (sorry, I’ll use ‘era’ for the rest of this article) and lasted for centuries.

Essentially, women would ball up rags of whatever they had to hand and place them between their legs to manage their flow.

Now obviously, the richer you were, the better quality rags! So if you’re a well to do girl about town, then you get some lovely linen.

BUT if you’re a peasant, I’m afraid you’re getting some itchy offcuts that you have to rewash every use – nice.

2. Suspension management 

I bet you we’re thinking that those rags were stuffed in a set of knickers, right? NOPE!

Broadly speaking, from the Medieval era, right up to the Victorian era, women didn’t wear knickers (or similar) because, underwear was very much a male thing (click here for the full history of womens underwear)

So if you don’t have underpants holding those rags in place, you best think of a plan B fast; without them, things are gonna get real bloody real quick, after all:

gravity gif.gif

There’s  a lot of evidence that women wore girdle like contraptions to keep their rags in place.

Queen Elizabeth I actually owned a snazzy set of black silk girdles, specifically for use during her periods; girl was not getting any period stains.

BUT much like with the quality of rags, how rich a woman was, massively effected the quality of her rag holding device.

So a woman might have to make her own belted girdle type thing at home, or if she was in a really tight budget, go full Blue Peter and make something from twine, scraps of fabric and whatever else was lying around.

3. Bog Moss

Yeah. You read that right. BOG. MOSS eeeeew gif.gif

Now, this is more of widespread theory, than one with concrete evidence, but there’s a lot to back it up, plus, you know, it’s fully horrifying, so I’m totally including it!

Sphagnum is a type of moss, that grows in cold damp places (so most of the UK) and for the last 1000 years, this little beauty has saved countless lives, thanks to it’s ability to absorb liquid more than 20 times its size!

Commonly used on battlefields, Sphagnum packed up wounds and stop people bleeding to death.

So it would make a lot of sense that women would have also utilised this –incredibly easy to get your hands on– plant that was renowned for soaking up blood… even if it mainly did come from bogs, hey, needs must right?

So, if you’re ever in the countryside and in a pinch..               you know what to do.

4. Wool sanitary towels 

By the 1880s sanitary towels had started to appear.

As always, they were only something for the well off, but it was a huge step in women actually being able to comfortably manage their periods!

An advert for Southalls Sanitary Towels from 1887
This advert for an early towel, appeared in Harpers Bazaar in 1887

 There was one big down side: many of these early towels were stuffed with wool:

An 1880s advert for Southalls Wool Sanitary Towels
Another early sanitary advert from the 1880s

Ok, here’s  the thing. Cotton is absorbent. Wool is not. It doesn’t matter how many times an advert labels wool as absorbent, its still not good at actually absorbing liquid.

Imagine your most wooly jumper when its sopping wet. Now imagine that between your legs. Yeah. No. All the no’s to that!

Luckily, change was coming:

5. Bandages 

During the First World War, nurses did not have time to faff about with their periods; quickly working out that the new disposable bandages they were using on wounds, were also a fantastic tool to help manage their flow.

This combined with the new invention of, Cellucotten (a sort of cotton made from wood pulp) caught on, with materials now more widely available, the nurses invention went mainstream.

In the 1920s Kotex launched its disposable sanitary towels, citing the battlefield nurses as their inspiration.

And so launched a boom in period inventions! 

period gif.gif
Truly one of the best invention revolutions in history!

This was interesting where can I find out more? Well you can check out our full history of periods HERE

MORE IMPORTANTLY, you can help make sure nobody ever needs to go back to the medieval days of rags ever again! Period poverty is a very real thing, with some girls not attending school when they’re on their period.

You can help stop this by:

  • Donating sanitary products to your local food bank (list of Trussel Trust banks near you HERE) seriously even one spare pack makes all the difference! 
  • Donating to period poverty charity, Bloody Good Period 
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