The history of underwear sheds light on what women used for menstruation.
What women used in earlier times: See nineteenth-century Norwegian washable pads and an Italian washable "rag" from before 1900 - German patterns for washable pads, about 1900 - Japanese patterns for washable pads (early 20th century) - Contemporary washable pads - Women sometimes wore washable pads with a sanitary apron - Egyptian hieroglyphics telling of tampon use - The first commercial tampons, (U.S.A., 1930s) - Menstrual cups (1930s) - Special underpants
CONTRIBUTE to Humor, Words and expressions about menstruation and Would you stop menstruating if you could?
Some MUM site links:

MUM address & What does MUM mean? |
Email the museum |
Privacy on this site |
Who runs this museum?? |
Amazing women! |
Art of menstruation |
Artists (non-menstrual) |
Asbestos |
Belts |
Bidets |
Bly, Nellie |
MUM board |
Books: menstruation and menopause (and reviews) |
Cats |
Company booklets for girls (mostly) directory |
Contraception and religion |
Costumes |
Menstrual cups |
Cup usage |
Dispensers |
Douches, pain, sprays |
Essay directory |
Extraction |
Facts-of-life booklets for girls |
Famous women in menstrual hygiene ads |
Founder/director biography |
Gynecological topics by Dr. Soucasaux |
Humor |
Huts |
Links |
Masturbation |
Media coverage of MUM |
Menarche booklets for girls and parents |
Miscellaneous |
Museum future |
Norwegian menstruation exhibit |
Odor |
Olor |
Pad directory |
Patent medicine |
Poetry directory |
Products, some current |
Puberty booklets for girls and parents|
Religion |
Religión y menstruación |
Your remedies for menstrual discomfort |
Menstrual products safety |
Seguridad de productos para la menstruación |
Science |
Shame |
Slapping, menstrual |
Sponges |
Synchrony |
Tampon directory |
Early tampons |
Teen ads directory |
Tour of the former museum (video) |
Underpants & panties directory |
Videos, films directory |
Words and expressions about menstruation |
Would you stop menstruating if you could? |
What did women do about menstruation in the past? |
Washable pads |
Read 10 years (1996-2006) of articles and Letters to Your MUM on this site.
Leer la versión en español de los siguientes temas: Anticoncepción y religión, Breve reseña - Olor - Religión y menstruación - Seguridad de productos para la menstruación.

Articles and comments about European women and menstruation from the distant past through the early 20th century

17th century England

"When they menstruated, they left a trail of blood behind them."
What did European and American women use for menstruation in the 19th century and before? (With additions about Muslim law and Jewish law.)

Many people ask me what women did in earlier times about menstruation. It's usually impossible to say for sure for most cultures, although women have used tampons, pads ("rags" and commercial ones), sponges, grass and other absorbent materials probably for thousands of years.

In European cultures, the history of women, especially their everyday affairs, is inadequate; men ruled the roost and women were "good" for a limited number of things, few worth recording - at least, so thought the men.

Dr. Monica Green, of the Duke University history department, warned me of this lack of information right before I opened the actual museum, in 1994. I had written her after seeing her quoted in a New York Times article about ancient contraception.

But Dr Sara Read (Loughborough University, U.K.) writes that probably many 17th-century British women menstruated into their clothing. [More articles and information from Dr Read.]


 Read why I have concluded, in May 2001, that most European and American women probably used nothing at all, bleeding into their clothing.

Sabine Hering and Gudrun Maierhof, in Die unpäßliche Frau ("The Indisposed Woman," Pfaffenweiler, Germany, 1991), write that German women almost never used commercial menstrual pads in the late 19th century [see a German disposable from that time]. They write,

"Most women seemed to have made their own pads or, like rural women, wore neither pads nor underpants. When they menstruated, they left a trail of blood behind them." [My translation of "Die meisten Frauen scheinen sich mit selbstgenähten Stofftüchern beholfen zu haben oder wie die Frauen auf dem Lande gänzlich auf Einlagen oder Unterhosen verzichtet zu haben. Menstruierten sie, so zogen sie eine Blutspur hinter sich her." The authors don't say what their sources were.] [See German patterns for homemade menstrual gear from this time.]

Read also more evidence for bleeding into clothes from another German source here.

I lived in Germany for 13 years and know that in the recent past Germans worried less about body odor than Americans did, who seem to object to any odor at all (I'm an American). And I think that a hundred and more years ago body odor was much more apparent. I suspect that the smell of menstrual blood was much more common and, I suspect, the sight of it, too. (Read more about menstrual odor).

Telling the story of women who fought as soldiers in the American Civil War, the authors of "They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War" (DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook Burgess; Louisiana State University Press, 2002) remark that most of these women were from working class backgrounds and couldn't write, thus not leaving written records, which would be the case with menstruation if our German sources are correct - not that literate women would eagerly record theirs.

I wonder how this "open" menstruation influenced the behavior of men? It seems likely that women had to conceal both blood and odor before they were able to extensively participate in male business society. The relationship between men, women, menstruation and women's health is unendingly complex - and interesting.

Extrapolating, my guess is that in "European" America and Europe a certain - large? - percentage of women in the 19th century and before (and into the 20th century) bled into their clothing, especially those from the rural and lower classes, and American women migrating westward, "pioneers." (See a more detailed discussion, with pictures, of why I believe this is so.) After all, America and Europe were mostly rural, and the standards of living were low. American slaves might have also bled into their clothing. And there apparently are societies today, in India, for example, where women do not try to absorb their bleeding with anything special, or hide the process. But these are just my guesses. [See some 19th-century Norwegian knitted pads and Italian washable pads, probably from the 19th century.]

By the way, Megan Hicks, former Curator of Health and Medicine at the Powerhouse Museum, Australia's largest, wrote me that cloth menstrual rags from a 19th-century women's prison are on display at that prison. It could be that rags were used to maintain hygiene in this enclosed environment, something perhaps less necessary if the women were free. It seems likely that Australian customs for women of European origin were similar to the European ones of the time, just as in America.

Keep in mind that 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, legitimizing the production of children, 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 under- and malnourished or sick, or any combination thereof, which can stop menstruation
  • died earlier - stopping it dead

(Read many of these same points, made by Prof. Patricia Sulak, M.D., at Texas A&M University.)

These points apply to millions of women today.

It's possible that women attained adulthood and gave birth to children, but never menstruated.

People could, and often did, interpret menstruation as something bad - a sign of infertility, for example, and meaning the woman was not doing her "job." Reinforcing this was the fact that the appearance of non-menstrual blood indicated something amiss; why should menstrual blood be any different? This might partly account for the many beliefs about the evil effects of menstruating women: they weren't doing their job as women.

And the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, of Hippocratic oath fame, may have started the practice of bleeding sick people after observing women recovering from bloating and aches and pains after starting their periods!

Muslim law:

An e-mailer wrote the museum in November 2000, which I should add to this discussion:

As with so many cultures, there are rules and etiquettes surrounding menstruation in various Muslim cultures. Religiously, there are certain rites that women are required to suspend (including a type of formal prayer known as salat, and also sexual intercourse) during the time that they are menstruating, which they resume after fully immersing and washing themselves in water (known as ghusl) once the bleeding has stopped. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the women in the Muslim community used to approach the wives of the Prophet, asking them to inspect their cotton wads they used as pads, to check whether or not they had 'finished' their periods. (Emission of non-menstrual blood and other bodily fluids do not require suspension of religious rites, but do require a minor ablution to be performed beforehand).

The Prophet himself was asked about what method a (particular) woman should use to stem the flow of severe menstrual blood. He advised her that she should use cotton or a cloth. Although another report indicates that for one wife of the Prophet who had extra bleeding (non-menstrual blood) to place a tray underneath to catch any blood while she prayed.

Another hadith (tradition) reports that: "The woman who has a prolonged flow of blood should wash herself every day when her menstrual period is over and take a woolen cloth greased with fat or oil (to tie over the private parts)." (Sahih Bukhari 1:0302).

Jewish law
From an e-mailer, March 2012:

Hello. I just stumbled upon your piece on menstruation behaviors of women in past generations - fascinating. I just wanted to mention that it would probably have been highly unlikely that Jewish women did not wear underwear or pads of some sort, as menstruation has many halakhic ramifications (in regard to intercourse and other marriage laws) which are still very much in use today by Jewish women the world over. Jewish law (halakha) requires menstruating women to count five days after the start of their period, then insert clean white cotton cloths vaginally twice daily to assure that the flow of blood has stopped, as well as wear white underwear and sleep on white bedding [a practice which was, indeed, probably instituted because bloomers were not pressed tightly against the skin, or not worn to sleep] for a week before they may ritually wash in a mikva, or ritualarium. These laws are among the top two or three laws that Jews consider "defining", that
 is, a "if he/she keeps these laws, he/she is practicing Jew" sort of thing.†

So - in summation - not only are/were Jewish women highly aware of their menstruation, and not only was it not considered something abominable or embarrassing, it was governed by a strict and encompassing set of laws that makes me think that there must have been undergarments of some sort worn. I wonder if the Talmud addresses this interesting issue?†

In any case, just an interesting cultural side point. Thanks for bringing up the topic!

Most sincerely

In September, 2006, a retired American teacher wrote about her family and NOT bleeding into clothing and other matters, such as no-belt pads without underpants, recipes for poisoning instead of divorce, and interesting birth-control methods in the previous two centuries:

I have been reading the Web site [scroll to the top of this page] and I find it highly doubtful that women just bled into their clothing, I'm sure they were more creative than that, but I can only tell you about my family. My mother (born 1913) never wore underwear and used the diapers she had used on me. (I was born in 1954.) Just folded it and tucked between her legs. I never remember it falling out from under her skirt either. When changing one she would dampen the one she was wearing, wipe well with it and put it in the lidded enamel pail of cold water, and tuck a clean one between her legs. We were very poor, living in a one room house in the South with an outdoor toilet and pump in the yard and no privacy. I went to live with an aunt at age 8 but have clear memories of my mother and it was just matter of fact, no shame. I received the usual sex ed at school that included a film about menstruation and the matching "Very Personally Yours" booklet that went with it in the sixth grade and was given the sanitary belt by Modess, the pink package that you have on the Web site where you are not sure of the date. I received that package in 1964 so that helps to narrow the date.

I was visiting my grandmother in the summer as I often did, when I started my period one night. I began menstruation at age 14 as had my grandmother, and am still menstruating at age 53; my grandmother's didn't cease until age 56. She was born in 1884, died 1973 and we were very close. I went to her because I didn't know what to use and had only folded some toilet paper between my legs. The stores were closed. Grandmother said, don't worry, I'll make you a travel napkin. She went to the kitchen got the cheesecloth (she used it on cheese, straining fruit for jelly, wrapping fruit cake, keeping flies off food, etc.) then went and got some cotton batting that she used in making quilts, and went to the treadle singer sewing machine she used her whole life, cut a length of cheesecloth folded into thirds (single layer on top next to skin, two overlapped layers underneath the batting) around four layers of the batting, (flat cotton layers for quilts) sewed both ends near the batting, and when finished it was almost identical to the commercial Kotex that I was used to, and she whipped up a second one with three layers of batting so I would have one to change into in the morning when we would go to the store to buy some. So with two safety pins, which you pinned to the elastic of your underwear, and threaded the napkin ends through like on the belts,(you did not pin the napkins), I was all set. I asked why she called it a travel napkin, and she said that when she was young she wore cloth at home but when you traveled, you made these up so you could throw them away. She told me her sister used to make little drawstring bags of cheesecloth and stuff with cotton, leaving the string and used like a tampon, but you could open the bag and change the cotton. (Great Aunt Amanda was a midwife, traveling on horseback.)  She had tried it, but it leaked for her so she would have to wear a napkin (and she had always called it napkin) anyway so she didn't like them. She said when she was working at the sheriff's office, 1904, she would wear both in order to get through the day, but usually would just wad some extra cotton between her and the pad and change those extra wads. Since she lived in Arkansas, near the cotton fields, it was a cheap alternative for her to make for her daughters even in the Depression. She still had the carding tool she used to remove cotton seeds herself. I asked what her mother had used in Indiana; she said her mother, born 1848 in Kentucky (on a tobacco plantation), used sheepskins cut into the size of the napkin body (without the tails). She would rub tallow into the skin to resist moisture and wear the fur side next to her body to absorb the blood. She soaked them in cold water just like cloth, and then would boil them to clean them just as my grandmother and mother had the cloth ones. She said her mother never wore underwear either and at home just tucked the sheepskin between her legs, but hers did fall out from under her skirt once in a while, and she often was reaching under her skirt to adjust it. We decided it was because she was so thin versus my mother whose fat thighs kept hers in place. (I have no trouble walking around with one stuck between mine either.) When she went out somewhere she would put a leather belt under her clothing, take a strip of cheesecloth (obviously cheap and always around like cotton batting) and loop it over the belt and between her legs to hold the sheepskin in place. My grandmother also had used that method at times. Her mother believed the sheepskins were healthier and better because she didn't bleed through the way you would cotton because of tallow on the back and they didn't chafe her. She wanted her girls to use them but neither grandmother nor aunt Amanda liked them because grandmother insisted they smelled and that even washing them the same way as the cloth they held the odor. According to her, she felt the cotton was better. So, I can only tell you back to 1848 and assume my great grandmother had learned from her mother but I realize I am lucky to know that much since the other people in my family did treat the subject like it was a dirty secret.   

She also told me her cousins in Indiana used travel napkins when they came to visit on the train from the farm in Indiana but they gathered a fluffy material from a weed in the fall of the year (I can't remember the name of the weed) that grew in fields to use to stuff the cheesecloth with, she had tried it too but it didn't absorb as well according to her. So, women a hundred years ago had a homemade disposable before a commercial one was ever made both as a napkin and a tampon, 150 years ago a sheepskin method was being used that was probably learned from a mother and I find it hard to believe that women ever deliberately just bled into their valuable, scarce clothing when it is so easy to wad at least a rag between your legs.

Now, a word about birth control. My grandmother believed that a woman who had too many children was "too lazy to get out of bed" and clean up, and said so often and with disdain. She used quilting squares of cotton, rubbed lard into the cloth (about four inches square) and used it like a diaphragm during her fertile period (she kept track of that too) and would get up and clean afterward. She said when Coca Cola was available it was easier to use, you just shook up the bottle and inserted it to douche and the six ounce size was perfect. She had four children which is how many she said she wanted but got pregnant once years later but miscarried. Aunt Amanda (the midwife) and Aunt Edith only wanted one child each and that is all they had but grandmother said they had a couple of miscarriages. I am now suspicious of the miscarriages but didn't know enough at the time to ask the right questions as I am sure she would have told me. She had learned to use greased fabric squares from her mother.

One last thing: my great grandmother had divorced in Indiana and at that time it was such a disgrace that they moved to Arkansas. Her oldest daughter later divorced too. My grandmother, in defense of her mother and sister, said, well at least they didn't poison them, which lead to an interesting discussion of poison; according to my grandmother, women preferred over divorce. She said the most common was castor oil beans cooked in the same pot with brown beans and also oleander and mandrake root. My grandmother knew a lot about herbs from her mother and taught me a lot (we used to make shampoo from soapwort, and it was the best to whiten old linen; I wonder if textile museums know that?) and this had been passed down in the family along with the knowledge of poisons. So, you were looking for a new topic, it would be interesting how many women have heard about this. I remember years ago about a woman writing in her diary about the Civil War and including the fact she had poisoned someone. It may have been more common when women had no rights to property.  I haven't known anyone who admitted to using it but I have known other woman who had heard about the recipes.

My grandmother had lived in interesting times, she loved yellow roses because they were the symbol for a woman's right to vote, and she was widowed, working and raising four children on her own before getting that right. She told me about the broadcast of [Orson Welles'] "War of the Worlds" and thinking it was true at first. She told me about going from horses to cars, electricity, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and was thrilled to live long enough to see a man on the moon. I wish everyone had a grandmother like mine.

What women used in earlier times:
See nineteenth-century Norwegian washable pads and an Italian washable "rag" from before 1900 - German patterns for washable pads, about 1900 - Japanese patterns for washable pads (early 20th century) - See contemporary washable pads - Women sometimes wore washable pads with a sanitary apron - Egyptian hieroglyphics telling of contraceptive-tampon use - The first commercial tampons, 1930s - Menstrual cups - Special underpants - suspenders holding pads (U.S.A.)

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