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 |
Birth control and religion |
Birth control drugs, old |
Birth control douche & sponges |
Founder bio |
Bly, Nellie |
MUM board |
Books: menstruation & menopause (& reviews) |
Cats |
Company booklets for girls (mostly) directory |
Contraceptive douche & sponges |
Contraceptive drugs, old |
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.

Former museum–FutureComic strip about a visit to the museum

Sponges for contraception - birth control - and absorbing menstrual flow

Women have probably used sponges to absorb menstrual discharge for thousands of years, but they have also used them as contraceptives and for putting medication into the vagina (as with tampons; see hieroglyphics from about 1550 BCE). Sometimes it's hard to say which sponge was used for what - but maybe women sometimes used them for all three purposes.

During the era of the Comstock Act in the U.S.A., 1873 to well into the 20th century, when contraception was illegal, American women used sponges to hold liquids that killed sperm as well as to absorb menstrual blood, but ads could not say this. Thus the assertion in the ad, below, that the sponge could keep the vagina "germ free," similar to the wording of douche ads (see a Lysol ad, among others, for this dual purpose).

The ad is from the American Medical Association Archives, Chicago, and reproduced in Devices & Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, by Andrea Tone (Hill and Wang, 2001 - buy it). Undated, it looks to me as if it's from the early 20th or late 19th century. Professor Tone notes that the word "germ" really means "sperm."

See examples of this box and sponge, below.

But first . . .

Cleaning sponges
Dr. Philip Tierno, Jr., a MUM board member and expert on the safety of menstrual products, writes (October 1999), in part,

The odor emanating from the used and washed sponges represent the action of surviving vaginal bacteria and their degradation of menstrual debris that survives the wash. The only effective way to sanitize those sponges is by boiling for about 5 to 10 minutes. This will kill ALL bacteria there.

Interestingly, looking back in history, women used to boil their menstrual "rags" to get them clean. This is an analogous circumstance.

John Fleer, who lives in Michigan (U.S.A.), searched for patent medicine bottles in old drugstores in the central part of the U.S.A. for many years, and came upon this menstrual sponge (the orange can, below) about 1966 in an area of Kansas located next to an Army training area during World War II. The drugstore was deserted, although bookies had used it recently for their illegal operations! He kindly donated it to MUM after reading an article about this museum in the Chicago Tribune.

Both the red cross and the word "health" make the medical connection to menstruation, a hangover from the medicalization of menstruation in the last century, which apparently occurred because of the feeling of shame Victorianism caused women to feel about their bodies. Mothers then abandoned teaching their daughters about their periods; doctors - males - took over by default, and the rest is history.

But the word may also refer to its possible use as a birth-control device.

Dr. Barbara Czerwinski, of the University of Texas, a MUM board member, who has completed a study for the U.S. Department of Defense of the hygienic requirements of female members of the Armed Forces, believes the U.S. Army may have issued this sponge to female troops (WAC) destined for the South Pacific.

The National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution has three similar examples of sponges (at least it did in 1995).


This is the sponge (below) and case (bottom part at left) John Fleer sent to MUM, which was perhaps available during World War II.


The contents of the above can. 


You are looking at another case, date unknown, from an angle. It is virtually the same size and shape as the first sponge can, although the top is slightly domed. The can is empty. See a similar but not identical can with sponge.

Below: Again, another sponge and case are virtually identical to the Fleer sponge, above.
A woman in an American Pacific coast state found two of these in the effects of a deceased aunt and generously sent one to the museum in July 2001. Figuring backwards from her age, her aunt probably bought it between 1920 and 1930 - unless SHE inherited it! The typography reminds me of the 1930s - 1940s.


The case matches the Fleer sponge in size.


Side view
The sponge nestled in its case.

NEXT: Cardboard American sponge can with sponge.
Orange-design can with sponge. Black can and sponge.
Beautiful (Australian?) sponge can with sponge lacking a net.
Anna Health Sponge (U.S.A., 1940s?)
The contemporary Sea Pearls (from the U.S.A.) menstrual sponge
The contemporary Gynotex (from the Netherlands) menstrual sponge

Read the main Hartmann early disposable pad page and see similar early U.K. towels (menstrual pads) by Mosana.
Washable pads - Menstrual sponge - Swedish advertisement for a belt and pad and adhesive pad
Suspenders for holding pads (U.S.A., 19th century)

© 2001 Harry Finley. It is illegal to reproduce or distribute any of the work on
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author. Please report suspected violations to hfinley@mum.org