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.

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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! 

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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 

Florence Lawrence the mechanic that created film stars

Florence Lawrence was born into show business. Her mother was a Vaudeville stalwart and Florence first trod the boards aged 3, in a cutesy act where she was dubbed ‘Baby Flo, The Child Wonder Whistler’ (apparently what passed for entertainment was a lot different then)

Thankfully, Florence grew up, and got the hell out of whistling based entertainment, moving to the newly developing film industry. By 1906 she landed had her first film role.

Within just a few months Florence had appeared in dozens of films. It was thanks to this relentless work ethic, as well as that Florence’s strong acting ability and looks, that led to Florence landing her big break. The plum part of Daniel Boones daughter, in Boone, a biopic of (unsurprisingly) Daniel Boone.

For this honour Florence got to stand in the freezing cold for hours on end, whilst being paid a pittance. Glamorous this was not. BUT Vitagraph, the studio behind Boone, loved Florence and almost immediately she was signed up and staring as the lead in countless films.

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Florence on set, giving some serious face

However, Vitagraph weren’t the only studio who’d fallen for Flo. Biograph Studios was the industry big hitter and they wanted Florence on their roster.

With an offer of more money and endless opportunities, Florence would have been stupid to turn Biograph down.

And so by 1908, just 2 years after starting out in film, Florence was Biograph’s main attraction. Her face plastered everywhere, she was a box office draw like no other.

Suddenly Florence had become the worlds first film star – but there was just one caveat:

Nobody knew who she was. 

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I know, it makes no sense! But don’t worry there is a -kind of confusing- explanation!

You see Biograph didn’t credit their onscreen talent. And so, Florence’s name never appeared anywhere near her films.

And despite their desperate pleas, fans were never offered her real name. She was known only as:

The Biograph Girl 

Florence Lawrence
Seriously, you couldn’t move in 1908 without seeing this face

One big downside of being famous but nameless was that you were very disposable, something Florence found out when she was fired from Biograph after trying to source her own work.

Florence was down, but she wasn’t out! So, she joined an independent film, The Broken Oath, with the films posters and promo all featuring Florence by name.

Now Florence wasn’t just the first film star, she was the first titled film star

With a name to go with the face, the world went Florence Lawrence mad. And so, Florence invented the film star and the celebrity that goes stardom.

Which is kind of ironic, considering Florence’s true passion:


Florence in a car
Florence and her true love

Florence was never happier than when she was under the hood of a car. She spent years studying up in mechanics and tinkering with as many engines as she could get her hands on.

Seriously, girl loved cars, once saying:

“A car to me is something that is almost human, something that responds to kindness and understanding and care, just as people do.”

But despite Florence feeling cars were inherently wonderful and kind, they had a bit of a bad rep, thanks to their nasty habit of killing a ton of people. Florence decided to change that.

In 1914 she started developing a system that allowed drivers to tell other drivers and pedestrians which way they were going (a sign flipped up with a quick click of a button) then she invited a system that alerted people when the car was about to brake.

Florence’s inventions were the forerunners to the electric signal turns and brake lights that are now in every car worldwide today. 

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Casually inventing life saving mechanics AND film stardom

Sadly Florence never patented her inventions, so she never got the credit she deserved or ALL of the money that goes with such world changing genius.

Sadly it only gets worse from here. Florence was badly burned in an onset accident, which left her with burns on her face and dramatically cut her work offers.

Then she lost most of her money in the final crash of 1929. By the 1930s, Florence was broke, with a string of divorces and business closures behind her and a medical condition that caused her unceasing pain, in addition to depression.

In 1938, Florence Lawrence took her own life. 

But thats not the end of Florence Lawrence’s story.  Well, it doesn’t have to be.

Florence’s groundbreaking film career and her incredible inventions are just starting to be remembered.

So tell people about this amazing lady and when you’re next in a car (or near one!) remember to thank Florence, because she invented the break light, which has totally saved your arse at least once. Yours, Florence Flawrence

That was interesting, where can I find out more? Kelly Brown has a fun biography of Florence (Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America’s First Movie Star) it’s more focused on her film career than her work in mechancics, but a great read on the silent era of film

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