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What did women use for menstruation in Europe and America from 1700 - 1900, and probably earlier?

Many - most? - women probably used nothing.

Read this translated German quote (the original German is a few paragraphs down):

"How did women handle their menstruation in daily life? In 1899 a German woman physician wrote the following advice in a book for German middle-class women ("Health in the House"):

'It is completely disgusting to bleed into your chemise, and wearing that same chemise for four to eight days can cause infections.'[Dr Sara Read discusses 17th-century women menstruating into their clothing in the United Kingdom.]

"This was the age-old custom for rural women and women from the lower classes. Virtually only women in the theater professions wore close-fitting pads [Binden - see a modern American 'theatrical tampon'] or sponges and few women wore underpants or even used pads, which they made from cloth. Washing and changing underclothing was regarded as unhealthy, because women feared it would block the bleeding or cause more intense bleeding."
(The above is my translation of a quote, below, from "
Zur Geschichte der Unterwäsche 1700-1960." 1988. Historisches Museum Frankfurt, p. 336, written by two women, Almut Junker and Eva Stille.

That history museum in Frankfurt, Germany, held a large exhibit of the history of underwear that included menstrual clothing. The Hessian State Museum in Darmstadt, Germany, exhibited menstrual products in the city of Lorsch from 26 November 1998 to 31 July 1999.

The German quote is
"Wie aber gingen die Frauen mit der Monatsblutung im Alltag um? Noch 1899 findet sich in einem von einer Ärztin verfaßten Gesundheitsbuch für bürgerliche Frauen die Belehrung: 'Es ist höchst unappetitlich, das Blut im Hemd aufzufangen, und gar dasselbe Hemd 4-8 Tage zu tragen ist infectionsgefärlich.' [H.B. Adams Lehmann: Die Gesundheit im Haus, Stuttgart, 1899, p. 681.] Dies war bei Frauen auf dem Land und aus den unteren Schichten eine von alters her bekannte Praxis. Enganliegende Binden oder Schwammkissen waren fast nur in Theaterberufen in Gebrauch, und nur wenig Frauen trugen Unterhosen oder benutzten schon Binden, die sie aus Tüchern oder Leinwandlappen gefertigt hatten. Das Waschen und das Wechseln der Wäsche galt in dieser Zeit als gesundheitsgefährdend, weil eine Stockung oder Verstärkung der Blutung befürchtet wurde."

(Probably because of the increasing acceptance of germ theory, the authors report that German doctors in the 1880s and 1890s started proposing menstrual devices for women to wear to improve their health, for example here and here. American patents for menstrual devices start in 1854 for a belt with steel springs to hold a pad, but really don't pick up steam until the 1870s. In her PhD dissertation, Menstrual Technology in the United States [1994], Laura Klosterman Kidd writes that she found no proof that anyone used these patented devices, although it seems likely someone must have.)

Let's say what Junker and Stille write is true, as I think it is.

The second largest group of last names in America is of German origin, after that from the British Isles, indicating that many Germans settled in America. My guess is that many of them were from the lower classes, looking for opportunities. Probably most of them kept many of their customs, including menstrual, after arriving in America, as did others from Europe with similar customs, at least for a while. And a certain proportion of them migrated west as pioneers.

Menstruation and its customs are almost never mentioned in the 17 pioneer women's diaries Laura Kidd examined and reported on in her dissertation (above); but she found a passage in one diary that hinted that the writer used nothing to absorb menstrual discharge other than her underwear, which she told another woman were dark, not white, and advised her to use the same dark colors. Kidd could find no extra cloth in lists of recommended items for women to bring on their journeys, which might have suggested menstrual use. Not one woman mentioned any device specifically designed to contain menstrual blood. (In her dissertation, Kidd refers to E. Shorter's A History of Women's Bodies [1982, New York. Basic Books] which also reports that European peasant women bled into their clothing, even quite recently. I have not read this book.)

(In 2001 producers of a American Public Television series about pioneers called me to ask what the modern-day participants re-creating pioneer conditions should use for menstruation. I told them it was uncertain what pioneer women used but that it was quite possible some, at least, used nothing. I understand they gave the women belts, possibly based on 19th-century drawings I sent them, some on this site.)

I'm not sure what European and American women from the moneyed and ruling classes used, although we probably can't regard them as all doing one thing or another. It's possible they used cloth and belt, or something else, as they could afford to do so, but not necessarily. The authors of Zur Geschichte der Unterwäsche 1700-1960 write of the strong perfumes women wore and used in their storage areas for clothing to conceal body odors, including those of bad teeth, sweat, dirt, skin infections, intestinal gas, and residue from defecation, urination and vaginal discharges, including yeast and the awful-smelling trichomonad infections; and people bathed much less often than today. Who knows what their "wiping practices" were? For reasons discussed here women usually menstruated less often than today and perhaps regarded menstruation as an accident, not completely predictable, and not worth anything special, since it could be disguised from the eye by a long dress or chemise and from the nose by perfume.

Today there are cultures in which women bleed into their clothing - for example, at least one in India. A woman former Peace Corps member who visited this museum told me that she was assigned to a region in Africa in which women in a poor village bled into their clothing; according to her, the men paid no special notice. Another woman told me that there is a culture on the Amazon river in which the word for a woman is "the person with a red streak down the leg." I suspect there are many such cultures. If so, why could that have not been the case in Europe? Maybe ethnic pride prevents us from considering this possibility. Europeans and especially Americans are above such a thing! Hah!

I believe that one reason we read almost nothing about what European and American women used for menstruation in the past two thousand years is because there is nothing to write, since they used nothing special, bleeding into their chemise or other clothing. At least most of them.


Some e-mail supporting the idea that (some? many?) women used nothing, and other topics:

In a Mexican village
Hi,

I never thought I'd find additional info beyond our interesting email back-and-forth, but to my surprise, my friend **** and I somehow touched on this topic (!!) when she visited me about two weeks ago. She mentioned that, as a child in the rural village in Mexico where she grew up (about 40-45 years ago, give or take), she remembered her mother having been one of the only women in the village to sew underwear for herself and her children, and said that she assumes that her neighbors and friends just menstruated directly onto the floor. As a matter of fact, she vividly recalls (as a very young child) watching a neighbor hurriedly wiping a small puddle of blood off the floor; shocked and fascinated, she asked her mother what was going on, but was hushed and hurried away in scandalized embarrassment! We both found this behavior fascinating (if not a bit repugnant), especially since the customary dress then, for Sundays at least, was floor-length,
 bleached-white skirts... hard to keep clean if you're menstruating!

Remember, though, this was a very rural village - they went to sleep at dusk, woke at dawn, used soap-berries to wash their laundry at the river, etc - but I was still fascinated to discover that your research was accurate even so recently as forty to fifty years ago!

Thank you again,
****

April 2012


In June 2001, I received this e-mail from a writer doing research on this subject in England:

Dear Mr Finley,

I have just found your Web site on menstruation. Fascinating and very informative.

I was particularly interested in your theory that European and American women didn't use sanitary protection.

When studying the Suffragist movement and Selina Cooper [an Englishwoman who lived from 1864 - 1946], I came across a very interesting story about Mrs Cooper. When working in the cotton mills circa 1900, she was horrified to discover that the mill women used no sanitary towels [menstrual pads], the floor of the work room was spread with straw to absorb menstrual fluids. Mrs Cooper also mentions the smell. When Mrs Cooper made sanitary pads for some of the women there was an outcry from some of the girls' mothers as they were worried that their daughters would not find husbands as the smell and flow attracted them, both being considered signs of fertility. The passage is in Jill Liddington, A Respectable Rebel: Selina Cooper, Virago (1984). One could interpret from this that the use of sanitary pads depended on the cultural background of women.

There is further evidence from other historical sources. I am trying to work my way through women's advice books from the 16th and 17th century [so has another person, Dr Sara Read]. Culpepper for example goes into great detail about pregnancy, childbirth, etc., and so far I can find no reference to the use of pads. [It's a typical, but strange omission.] It's very early days yet for this research but I hope to get something written in the autumn.

Regards

Joy Shillaker


Jewish law
An e-mail sent in 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
****
More about mikvas.



"The unhealthiness of wearing underpants" (e-mail from a site visitor, July 2001)

The point of this is not to titillate fellows who hope to get a peek up women's skirts, but to demonstrate that women survived the last several thousand years without undertrousers/drawers/panties/underpants. Without underpants women's crotches are ventilated and dry instead of unventilated and damp. Fungi and bacteria proliferate in warm, damp areas where there is nutrition. Female vaginal and vulval fluids are nutritious, and underpants, particularly tight fitting ones, create a near-ideal environment for undesirable fauna and flora.

For women who have trouble with chafing thighs, simply discarding the underpants will in many cases reduce dampness in the region and prevent chafing, which is mostly caused by damp skin rubbing together. Others who still suffer from chafing can wear thigh-high stockings (hose) which will prevent chafing, while the absence of underpants will help create a dry area above the stockings.

Loose drawers are much better than tight-fitting panties, and for those who are paranoid about some X-ray-eyed male peeking up the leg, loose "bloomers" that are snug in the cuffs will block any possible view. They do, though, reduce ventilation. Underskirts that are full enough to drape between the thighs when sitting, even with the thighs spread a little, block any peeking. They'll never know she doesn't have underpants on.

Excessive washing removes the oils that protect the skin.

Odor is reduced by the elimination of panties, reducing the perceived need for lots of washing. The whole crotch area of both men and women is mostly self-cleaning, and outside dirt is kept away by the outer clothing.

Maybe women were smarter years ago, wearing no underpants or wearing open bottom or loose drawers, and not being such fanatics about scrubbing. Shaving the legs also encourages chafing. Women didn't used to shave their legs at all and still don't in most of the world.

Men aren't nearly as vulnerable to dampness and chafing, but wearing tight underpants holds the testicles close to the body, which raises their temperature, reducing sperm count and vigor (not that this bothers many who don't want to be fertile, anyway). Testicular cancer and tumors are much more common among tight brief-wearers than among those men who wear loose drawers ("boxers") or no underpants.

No underpants is practical for uncircumcised men, but loose cotton or silk drawers protect tender parts from seams and zippers, and reduce soiling of the outer pants by body oils.

Just came back from a Scottish Highland Games festival. Bet those guys in the kilts don't have any dampness problems (actually most wear Bermuda shorts under them, not underdrawers). Formerly men wore loincloths under their kilts and tunics.


An American woman born in Germany e-mailed me this in September 2001:

A family friend in a Kuhdorf in Germany said how women with their long skirts wouldn't wear underpants presumably to pee standing up while outdoors (farm work, traveling) without cover for privacy.


Read an earlier discussion of this subject: What did European and American women use for menstruation in the 19th century and before? - A very short history of women's underclothing from 1700 to 1900
Directory of underwear on this site

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