Feminine Hygiene Products — Stephanie’s Maxi-history (Part 3)

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How the Boll Weevil and World War I led to the Acceptance of Disposable Sanitary Pads.

Continued from Part 2 — Stephanie’s Mini-history of Feminine Hygiene Products


Southern California Practitioner advertisement 1912

Southern California Practitioner advertisement 1912

Early attempts to market disposable sanitary napkins failed, and most companies gave up on the product. The vast majority of women went on using homemade pads — usually cotton wrapped in cheesecloth — just as their mothers had, and their mothers before them.
American Medical Women's Association Advertisement 1914

American Medical Women’s Association Advertisement 1914


Thank God for the Boll Weevil

Meanwhile, an infestation of the boll weevil was devastating southeastern cotton farming. This led to steep increases in cotton prices. (This is definitely an example of “nature works in mysterious ways.”)

Kimberly-Clark, which was then in the business of manufacturing surgical dressings, needed a cost-effective cotton substitute. They figured out a way to use wood pulp processed on machines that were specifically designed to produce a highly absorbent pad with an ultra-thin web that gave it strength. They called this Cellucotton, a melding of the words cellulose and cotton.

Cotton Boll Weevil

Cotton Boll Weevil


American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record Advertisement 1920

American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record advertisement 1920

During World War I, Kimberly-Clark supplied surgical dressings made with Cellucotton to the Red Cross and the US Army. But at the end of the war, there was a glut left over. They needed to find another use for the stuff or stop making it.

Kimberly-Clark hired a sales representative from Sears, a guy named Walter Luecke, to figure out how to sell Cellucotton. The company was aware that nurses in France had been pleased with using their surgical dressings as makeshift sanitary napkins during the war. But the public had already proven to be highly resistant to the concept of disposable pads, so the corporation was in no hurry to enter that market.

Luecke, however, felt this was the only potential market big enough to justify the continued manufacturing of Cellucotton. His persistence with both Kimberly Clark and the retail outlets led to the selling of cellucotton as what we now know as Kotex. And so we have the boll weevil to thank.


The Public Chafed at Seeing Boxes of Kotex on Store Shelves as Kotex Chafed Thighs of Women Who Wore Them

A Chicago Woolworth’s store sold the first box of Kotex in 1919. No content description existed on the box — certainly not such unsavory words as “sanitary napkin.” Most dealers didn’t want to display boxes of Kotex and refused to put it in their show windows.

Letters with moral objections to the product poured into the offices of Kimberly Clark. Luecke got names of women from the phone book and mailed them a free sample with the offer of discrete, regular deliveries of Kotex by mail. Not one woman responded.

Eventually, Luecke managed to place a high volume of advertising in both trade and consumer magazines, and he managed to convince both the stores and female consumers to overcome their resistance to napkins. Hurrah!

Good Housekeeping Magazine 1922

Good Housekeeping Magazine 1922

Disposable Tampons Finally Enter the Marketplace

A doctor named Earle Haas invented the first modern tampon with the tube-within-a-tube applicator for menstrual use in 1931, but after much effort he was frustrated by trying to get it going in the marketplace. He sold the patent to Gertrude Tendrich for $30,000, and she founded Tampax in 1933. Tendrich had better luck with sales, but she didn’t have the capability of wide distribution or mass production. Tendrich was bought out by Ellery Mann, who founded Tampax Incorporated in 1936.

To some extent, sanitary napkins absorbed (no pun intended) the public’s resistance to buying disposable feminine hygiene products but, not surprisingly, it still took a period (no pun intended) of adjustment before the public accepted this item that actually went inside the vagina.

1922 Northwestern Druggist Advertisement Announcing Window Display contest for Kotex

1922 Northwestern Druggist Advertisement Announcing Window Display contest for Kotex

Advertisment in Life Magazine 1939

Advertisment in Life Magazine 1939

Like Walter Luecke, Ellery Mann understood the need to convince the public that the use of tampax was not immoral. He went on a Super-Bowl-Size marketing blitz, advertising heavily in women’s magazines. These advertisements boldly touted the advantages of Tampax, proclaiming they were more comfortable, did not cause chafing, had a better chance of hiding any evidence of blood….

I guess one would have to say that he succeeded. Women were gradually won over. The company name was changed to Tambrands, Inc. in 1984, and was acquired by Procter & Gamble in 1997 for $1.85B.

Tampax Advertisement in Life Magazine 1938

Tampax Advertisement in Life Magazine 1938

rely-tampons-toxic-shockUnfortunately, by the late 1970s the quest to develop “super-absorbent” tampons went too far, and ended up killing many women who used them. The worst offender was Proctor & Gamble’s Rely tampons, made of cellulose gum and compressed beads of polyester. Their slogan was “We Even Absorb the Worry.” Unfortunately,  they also absorbed too much of the natural humidity of the vagina, leading to ulcerations in the vaginal wall that led to bacterial infection. These tampons also provided an excellent environment for bacteria to grow. This could lead to deadly Toxic Shock Syndrome. Over 50 women lost their lives and many others suffered because of the marketing of these tampons.

Despite the progress in manufacturing feminine hygiene products for women, smear (excuse the pun) jobs against menstrual blood continue on.

To Sir With Love by E.R. Braithwaite

To Sir With Love by E.R. Braithwaite

A rare citing of a sanitary napkin in literature can be found in TO SIR, WITH LOVE. The novel was originally published in 1959; a well-known movie based on the book with Sidney Poitier as the teacher of the “schoolroom savages” came out in 1967.

At one point the teacher enters his smoke-filled classroom to find some students standing around, laughing and joking, oblivious to a used sanitary napkin that is smouldering in the fireplace. He is “overcome with anger and disgust.” After ejecting the boys, he berates the girls for their “crude language and sluttish behavior.” Then he says the following:

“There are certain things which decent women keep private at all times, and I would have thought that your mother or older sisters would have explained such things to you. Only a filthy slut would’ve dared to do this thing.”

Now, if I’d written this scene, the perspective would’ve been quite different. The teacher (who probably would’ve been a woman) might’ve said something along the lines of “Isn’t it horrible how the toilet inevitably gets clogged if you try to flush your sanitary napkin? You should really use tampons. Not the super-absorbent kind, though, because they can cause Toxic Shock Syndrome. And if your mothers and sisters don’t know about them, tell them how great they are. They’ll get used to inserting them after one or two tries. Believe me, they are so much more convenient! Hey, can we open the window and let some of this smoke out?”


Did you miss the beginning of my menstrual cycle?
Read Part 1 HERE
Read Part 2 HERE

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