One of the beautiful things about history is that it allows us to learn about the origins of things and how they have evolved. We can see how far we have progressed over time with education, technology, and beliefs changing across communities. With this intrigue, we thought it would be interesting to study and understand the evolution of sanitary pads in India and all over the world.
For all that technology and innovation out there, it is appalling to think how much more we could have excelled in creating a superior product for menstruators if there were open and frank conversations about how we bleed. Lack of discourse is why there is so much work to be done on spreading awareness of menstrual hygiene. The silence compels many women to use anything within their reach to act as an absorber, especially in remote areas where education is limited and access to sanitary pads is a distant dream. Some of the absorbents are sand, husk, and wood pulp which are not at all hygienic, nor are they efficient at absorbing blood; even worse, they become a gateway to diseases, and in some cases, they are even life-threatening.
According to WHO, poor menstrual hygiene plays a partial role in the high rate of cervical cancer deaths in India – nearly twice the global average. Today, the sanitary pad remains the most helpful tool to control the bleeding during menstruation, even more so in India. (At GiveHer5, we distribute safe, eco-friendly, and reusable sanitary pads to many girls and women living in remote areas).
Now into history, we go.
It may surprise you, but initially, sanitary napkins were made for men to use. French nurses developed them to aid the wounded soldiers in battle to manage the bleeding. These sanitary napkins were made from materials that were cheap, absorbent, and disposable. Soon enough, this invention took the commercial route, and in 1888, it was available to buy under the name of Southall Pad. America followed with a product of their own launched by Johnson & Johnson in 1896. The name of the product was Lister’s Towel: Sanitary Towels for Ladies. There was a reluctance from women to buy into this brand due to the name of the product. So in the 1920s, it was changed to a much more discrete name – Nupak.
It wasn’t only the taboo associated with menstruation that acted as a deterrent; these sanitary napkins had a high price point that meant several women could not afford the product. Those who could afford them would be inconspicuous by leaving money in a box and taking the pads without dealing with the clerk. These pads were ineffective and troublesome as they kept slipping. They were made from cotton wool or similar material in a rectangle shape and covered with a liner to absorb the flow. This liner extended to the frontal and posterior regions to attach to loops in a belt or girdle, worn below underwear. Eventually, all this gave way to a much better method using adhesive strips to hold the pad in one place. Can you imagine wearing sanitary pads today without the essential adhesive strips?
In Egypt, they used papyrus. They would wet the papyrus in the Nile River to soften it for better absorption of blood. In Greece, they wrapped wooden splinters in cotton. English and German women bled into their clothes in the 18th and 19th centuries. The First World War brought a change in period products and gave way to several innovations like sanitary aprons and period bloomers. Sanitary aprons served more as a protectant to clothing rather than controlling blood flow. Period bloomers were like large diapers coated with rubber, being quite uncomfortable to wear, as you can imagine. They could prevent leaks but were not very hygienic as they did not allow the passage of air.
As the years rolled on, sanitary products took shape, evolving to the options we have today, such as pads (reusable, plastic, etc.), tampons, and menstrual cups. However, it is interesting to note that any advancements in sanitary products made their way into India only at a much later time than many other countries. Today, sanitary products are available in multiple options at any chemist across urban India. However, being a country with many underdeveloped areas, low-income people cannot afford pads at current prices. Hence, reduced supply chains are in place, leading to a severe disconnect with access to these bare essentials. Lack of accessibility to toilets and water amplify poor menstrual hygiene practices in rural areas. Did you know that up to 80% of women in India can’t afford sanitary protection, driving them to miss up to 5 days of school or work every month? Thankfully, efforts are being made to provide many of these women with low-cost and sustainable alternatives. GiveHer5 is a social initiative bringing safe, anti-microbial, and reusable sanitary solutions to young women in rural areas across India. You can join us in our efforts.