Sanitary Napkins and Menstrual Pads of the Past and Present

Updated on January 25, 2019

The history of feminine hygiene is much more extensive than I could imagine. Due to the vast amount of information to choose from, I dedicate this article to an overview of sanitary napkins in the Western world.

Women of the Past and Menstruation

Women in agrarian societies typically menstruate less than women in modern, industrialized societies. That's because women weigh more than they did in the past, start their periods at younger ages, and stop them at older ages (fat cells produce more estrogen). Scholars also suggest that hormones in modern food have led to earlier menstruation.

Prior to the 20th century, European and American women menstruated infrequently compared with today. They:

  • started menstruating later, frequently in the mid to late teens, and stopped earlier, if they lived long enough to experience menopause, thus creating a shorter time for menstruation
  • married earlier and bore children at an earlier age, which reduced menstruation
  • had more children, and used less contraception, stopping menstruation for long periods
  • breast fed their children longer (and more often), which usually stopped menstruation
  • were more likely to be undernourished, malnourished, or sick, or any combination thereof, which can stop menstruation
  • died earlier

Some of the most common forms of protection were grass, rabbit skins, sponges, rags, menstrual aprons, homemade knitted pads, or other kinds of absorbents.

Menstrual huts were common features in premodern cultures. They were a place where women were separated from the community during their menses for various reasons ranging from fear to respect.

Probably since the tenth century, women often used strips of cloth or rags to provide menstrual protection which they would wash and reuse. Which is why the term "on the rag" is used to refer to menstruation.

Apparently, many women in certain parts of Europe from 1700 to about 1900 also used nothing special during menstruation, but bled into their clothing.

Norwegian Washable Menstrual Pads, 19th Century

American Washable Menstrual Pad

Uk Ad of Hartmann's Disposable Menstrual Napkin, About 1888

German Instructions for Making Washable Menstrual Pads, Underpants, Menstrual Belts, Etc., Before 1900

A Turning Point in the 20th Century

The changes and progress in feminine hygiene products that we see today were made around the twentieth century.

In the United States, progressive values began to shape beliefs and values in the early 20th century. After the Civil War and at the onset of industrialization, men moved in large numbers from farms to factories. Women joined them in increasing numbers entering sales and clerical work.

Modern menstrual management was made possible by the modern American movement.

Sex education programs, menstrual product advertisement, and promotion in drug stores, and free, readily available menstrual education pamphlets broadly distributed modern approaches to menstruation. Equally important were newly emphasized values of efficiency, convenience, and consistent, carefully monitored self-presentation, which in turn supported new roles for women in school and in the workplace.

Sanitary Support Belt

Sanitary support belt held napkin to prevent soiling the clothes
Sanitary support belt held napkin to prevent soiling the clothes

Ad for Menstrual Napkin Belts, Pads and Sanitary Aprons, Smyth Catalog, 1916

Sanitary aprons, aprons made of waterproof material worn under women's dresses to protect them from stains (as from menstrual blood), seem to have been a hot item in the first half of the 20th-century in America
Sanitary aprons, aprons made of waterproof material worn under women's dresses to protect them from stains (as from menstrual blood), seem to have been a hot item in the first half of the 20th-century in America

Ad for Washable Cloth Sanitary Napkins, 1920s

Disposable Sanitary Pads

Disposable pads owe their origin to nurses who first came up with the idea of holding the flow of menstrual blood with the help of available wood pulp bandages in the hospital. Nurses in France used these bandages for menstrual pads, which they liked because they were very absorbent, and they were cheap enough to throw away.

The manufacturers of bandages borrowed the idea and produced pads made from handy products that were inexpensive enough to be disposed.

The Kimberly-Clark Company made bandages from wood pulp for American soldiers in the First World War.

The first of the disposable pads were generally in the form of a cotton, wool, or similar fibrous rectangle covered with an absorbent liner. The liner ends were extended front and back so as to fit through loops in a special girdle or belt worn beneath undergarments. This design was notorious for slipping either forward or behind the intended position.

Johnson & Johnson's sanitary napkins were said to be the first commercially available disposable sanitary protection products for women in the United States. The earliest ones the Company sold were called “Sanitary Napkins for Ladies” and “Lister’s Towels” (introduced in 1896).

The advertisements said “Lister’s Towels, Sanitary for Ladies,” but the problem was that women didn’t want to be seen buying sanitary towels for ladies. So, in the 1920s, the Company came out with Nupak—a brand name that could be safely asked for without being descriptive of what the product did. The box had a label on one side with just the brand name and the company name. The other sides of the box were plain so that it could be carried or stored without embarrassment.

Kotex, first called Cellucotton and Cellu-naps, was put on the market around 1920/1921. These didn’t begin to be accepted until about 1926 when Montgomery Ward actually advertised the product in its catalogue.

Even after disposable pads were commercially available, for several years they were too expensive for many women to afford. When they could be afforded, women were allowed to place money in a box so that they would not have to speak to the clerk and take a box of Kotex pads from the counter themselves. It took several years for disposable menstrual pads to become commonplace.

Johnson & Johnson's Early Sanitary Napkins in Plain Packaging

Lister’s Towels Ad Card, 1913

Lister's Towels Dispenser, 1914

Nupak Ad, 1920s

First Kotex Sanitary Napkin Ad in a Magazine,1921

Hickory Menstrual Pad Belts Ad, 1925

The Birth of the Underpants

Apparently women did not wear underpants until the upper classes started doing so in the nineteenth century. It was probably originally developed in England so children could shield their legs and genitals from view when playing at school.

The first ones were essentially two long leg tubes joined at the waist, leaving a large gap in the crotch, enabling the woman to perform bodily functions without lowering them.

Later in the century the gap was closed, and the legs became shorter. Sears sold a form of children's diapers early in the century, which actually looked like today's briefs, for both sexes.

In 1922 Sears advertised "sanitary bloomers" for night wear which look like the briefs we know.

It wasn't until 1935 that Sears sold what we would call briefs for women to wear in non-menstrual situations.

"Sanitary Step-In" Menstrual Underpants Ad, Mccall's Magazine, 1928

Hickory "sanitary step-in"  underpants,  underpants with a rubber crotch for wear during menstruation
Hickory "sanitary step-in" underpants, underpants with a rubber crotch for wear during menstruation

Ad for Sanitary Step-In and Sanitary Bloomers, 1934

Pad-n-All: A Combination Menstrual Pad and Belt, 1930-40s

Kotex Featherweight Belt, Late 1940s

The Discreet Era

In 1928, Johnson & Johnson started including silent purchase coupons in magazine ads for Modess. These could be cut out of the advertisements and silently presented to a salesperson, without the customer ever having to utter the name of the product. The product, still in a plain box so as not to cause undue embarrassment, could then be wrapped up in brown paper and taken home. A Ladies Home Journal ad stated, “In order that Modess may be obtained in a crowded store without embarrassment or discussion, Johnson & Johnson devised the Silent Purchase Coupon presented below. Simply cut it out and hand it to the sales person. You will receive one box of Modess. Could anything be easier?” (Ladies Home Journal ad for Modess, June, 1928.)

Modess Plain Packaging

Silent Purchase Coupon for Modess

Modess Ad, Good Housekeeping Magazine,1937

Kotex Ad, 1946

Modess Ad, 1949

High Fashion Sells

Johnson & Johnson considers the "Modess ....because" high fashion ads one of its most famous ad campaigns.

In the early part of the 20th century, women’s sanitary protection was a notoriously tricky product category to advertise, and the brand had not been doing well.

General Robert Wood Johnson, the son of company founder Robert Wood Johnson, was chairman of Johnson & Johnson at that time. General Johnson liked to attend advertising strategy meetings, and he suggested the company link its new ad campaign to high fashion, and make it completely different than anything seen before. So, the product director and the agency hired the top fashion houses to design gowns to be used exclusively for the ads, and used top fashion photographers to take pictures of famous models wearing the gowns in exotic locations, such as palaces and art museums. But the company was still confronted with the fact that women just didn’t like reading ads about sanitary protection. When it came time to write the advertising copy, the story goes that General Johnson said to use as few words as possible, like a sentence, or a phrase, or maybe just two words. He suggested, “Modess ….because.” (Most ads of the era tended to be pretty wordy, so the Modess ads really stood out.) The ad campaign was a huge hit and sales soared. It was later recognized as one of the hundred all-time great advertisements.

Modess Ad, 1951

Modess was advertised as the pad of the upper class in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The company used this high fashion theme for its ad campaigns well into the 50s and 60s.
Modess was advertised as the pad of the upper class in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The company used this high fashion theme for its ad campaigns well into the 50s and 60s.

Modess Ad, Ebony Magazine, 1959

Kotex Ad, 1963

Personal Digest Leaflet Published by Personal Products, Maker of Modess Menstrual Pads, 1966

Modess sanitary panties for holding sanitary napkins
Modess sanitary panties for holding sanitary napkins

Modess "Sanitary Shield" for Menstrual Pads by Personal Products Company, 1972

Modess Ad, France, 1970s

Stayfree Menstrual Panty Pad Ad, the Netherlands, 1972

A Milestone: The Beltless Napkin

Stayfree was the first beltless napkin. The pad was made to include an adhesive underside that stuck to the underwear securing its position. This created a revolution.

New brands followed suit. The industry boomed in the seventies and eighties. The new generation was not shy about sanitary pads, and manufacturers promoted their products extensively using television commercials.

By the mid-eighties the belted napkin was no longer available.

Stayfree Beltless Feminine Napkin Ad, Seventeen Magazine, 1973

Personal Products Company, maker of Modess, first introducted the beltless pads: the Stayfree adhesive pad
Personal Products Company, maker of Modess, first introducted the beltless pads: the Stayfree adhesive pad

New Freedom Feminine Napkin by Kotex, 1970

Carefree Panty Shields Commercial, 1982

Maxithins Panty Shields Commercial, 1984

New Freedom Slim Maxi Pads Commercial, 1985

Sure & Natural Maxishields ad, 1985
Sure & Natural Maxishields ad, 1985

Modern Reusable Cloth Pads

Reusable cloth menstrual pads made a return around the seventies with their popularity increasing in the late eighties and early nineties. They have become a popular alternative among some groups of women (e.g. feminists, environmentalists, and mothers who use cloth nappies/diapers) and are also gaining in popularity among more mainstream women because they are free of allergens, chemicals, and perfumes, and can be more comfortable for women who suffer irritation from using disposable pads.

Modern Washable Pads

Lunapads are Canadian made
Lunapads are Canadian made

Always: The New Leader

Always, which began in 1983, became an industry leader by introducing innovations such as wings on maxi pads, soft and cotton-like Dri-Weave material, Ultra Thin pads, Clean wipes, Infinity pads with Microdots for fast absorption, Flexi-Style wraparound edges that fold under to fit multiple panty styles, and Dri-Liners Plus with Odor-Lock for bladder leaks.

Always With Wings Commercial, 1980s

Always With Dri-Weave Commercial, 1990

Ultra Thin Pads

Always' revolutionary Ultra Thin pads are made of cotton wool mixed with special polymer crystals designed to absorb liquid. Once liquid enters the pads the polymer crystals absorb it turning it into a gel-like substance and trapping it inside. The top layer of the pad is designed to let liquid in, but stops the gel from getting out. This is why the pad feels dry and comfortable against the skin during use. All pads are basically made in the same way. The difference lies in the amount of cotton/polymer mix used. The more cotton/polymer used, the more liquid the pad can absorb.

Always Ultra Maxi Pads Commercial, 1993

Always Clean Ad

Always Clean was the first pad packaged with individually wrapped wipes to keep a woman feeling fresh. Their ad campaign says women can feel shower clean without the shower.
Always Clean was the first pad packaged with individually wrapped wipes to keep a woman feeling fresh. Their ad campaign says women can feel shower clean without the shower.

Always Uses a Red Dot in Ad

Advertising expert/blogger Copyranter called this Always Ultra Thin with Leak Guard ad a "historical advertising moment." The red dot suggests the obvious.
Advertising expert/blogger Copyranter called this Always Ultra Thin with Leak Guard ad a "historical advertising moment." The red dot suggests the obvious.

Always Infinity Commercial

Always Flexi-Style Thin Pantyliner

Dri-Liners Plus With Odor-Lock

How It's Made: Sanitary Napkins Video

It's Easier Being a Woman

As you can see, the sanitary napkin evolved quickly over the past century reflecting the rapid lifestyle changes of women. We've certainly come a long way, and I am thankful that today's products make it easier to be a woman.


Museum of Menstruation & Women's Health

"The modern period: menstruation in twentieth-century America" by Lara Freidenfelds

The story of Johnson & Johnson


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    • profile image


      13 months ago

      Fascinating! Any article or window into how everyday life was in the past brings more understanding into how our mothers and ancestors had to deal with this reality. What was once so secretive we can now share and teach our daughters. Openness has been evolutionary and who knows what's on the horizon.

    • profile image


      15 months ago

      Experienced. WOW. My jaw dropped when I read your comment. I’m 40, and my mom wasn’t too much better. She left it to the school health class as far as explanations went,and initially my dad actually bought our menstrual products and just put them in the hall closet for us to find when needed, along with midol, and heating pads,etc.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      In the '40's Mom sent me, age 7, to drugstore with a note. When I got home with the brown paper wrapped box of Kotex (a word I had never heard nor a product I had ever seen), i asked what was in the box. Mom said they were big bandages needed because Dad had a big cut on his knee. So of course when Dad got home from work, I asked to see his big cut and he was totally mystified. With 2 daughters, Mom never told us about menstruation so my older sister had to learn about it by being frightened of what was happening when she started bleeding. We went to a small rural school, the teacher then gave us all a little package from Kotex which had a sanitary belt, a pad, and a pamphlet about menstruation and how to use the belt and pad, so I was prepared when my first time came. Mom never bought products for us, I remember using pieces of old towels, white heavy cotton socks which were stuffed with toilet paper, or mostly, just plain toilet paper, until I got to school and could get a pad from the machine in the bathroom. Somehow, I never had spots on my clothing, only sometimes on my underwear.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Where were tampons?

    • profile image

      Cathy P 

      3 years ago

      I found this article by accident when I saw a sanitary floating on air on TV. I thought what sick person came up with that. I loved your article so very much and happy to know I was in the 1963 group

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      May I ask which one is the world's first Menstrual Pads TV commercial? Much appreciate

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      Oh what memories! This is hilarious to see all these old ads for feminine products. Actually, the night pants aren't a bad idea - helps with heavy flows and 'accidents' during the night. This was very interesting to read and like I said, I enjoyed the ads. Thanks for sharing! LOL

    • FullOfLoveSites profile image


      6 years ago from United States

      This is really, really interesting! The first time I saw a sanitary napkin when I was kid, when I noticed the word "beltless" I wonder why they were such. Now I discovered that napkins used to have belts. And also the sanitary underwear, never heard of that before. Really nice article! Thanks for posting. Up, interesting and shared.

    • wadebutler profile image

      Wade Butler 

      7 years ago from Evansville, Indiana

      Wow. This should be on the Discovery Channel. Excellent and totally interesting even for me, a man!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very well researched. You did an amazing job! My step-grandma told me about the pads with the belt that she used to have to wear. She said they were terrible. It feels good to use the pads and tampons that we have today! I was born in the 90's by the way.

    • profile image

      Linda Siegel 

      8 years ago

      Get ready guys and gal ! I have developed a new sanitary napkin that you wont see barely remember your wearing one. It wont leak ,It wont move , great for badder issues! It is anatomically correct in fitting ,adjusts to individual wearers body shape. Will not be wet on surface.. and i made a maxi pad disappear!!No under ware required unless your in a dress .. Coming soon to a shelve near you.. bb Liners for men and women. REAL PROBLEMS ARE NOW SOLVED!!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Does Anyone Have Any Photographs Of "Nikini" Sanitary Garments Or Briefs.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      very interesting esp for those of us who have an interest in this type of thing. for those who have trouble with synthetic ones these days there are still a few old style looped/belted ones buyable

    • Tranquilheart profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Canada

      Hello hofficoffi, I know what you mean. The only pads I can use are Stayfree with cottony dry cover. I love Always products but they irritate my skin.

    • hofficoffi profile image


      9 years ago from Sweden

      Hi! Very informative, puts our daily "problems" in a perpective, really. My problem today with these modern pads is that they are too synthetic, my skin doesn´t like them. (Good that I can choose re-usable made out of cotton or tampoons/mooncup instead).

    • Tranquilheart profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Canada

      Thanks for reading midnightbliss. I agree, it is very interesting how today`s pads came to be. I`m sure glad us ladies have comfy, absorbant & affordable pads available to us. It sure makes this curse more manageable.

    • midnightbliss profile image

      Haydee Anderson 

      9 years ago from Hermosa Beach

      this is a very interesting information. good thing we are now able to wear more comfortable pads than before.

    • Tranquilheart profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Canada

      Hi Thelma, I would be nice if we could give men some of our burdens. But I`m not sure if they can handle it easier. I`d hope they`d have a much better understanding of what women have to endure ... that would be a positive for sure. Thanks for the vote of support. :)

    • Tranquilheart profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Canada

      Hi europewalker, I'm so glad I live in this era. You're so right, women have had to deal with a lot of discomfort. Thanks for reading!

    • Tranquilheart profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Canada

      Hi danielleantosz, thanks for reading, glad you like it!

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 

      9 years ago from Germany and Philippines

      Very well done, indeed. I was thinking before that men should have mens instead of the women for I think it is easier for them to handle it. Don´t you think so? It is just a thought... Voted Up! Thanks for sharing.

    • europewalker profile image


      9 years ago

      Well done. Gee what women had to deal with. Thank goodness for tampons!

    • danielleantosz profile image


      9 years ago from Florida

      Wow! Very well researched and very interesting!


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