“Period Pride.” It’s not a pro-punctuation political campaign, but rather a recent movement seeking to encourage young millennials to embrace their lunar cycles and raise their menstrual cups in celebration. What a difference that is compared to the days when feminine products were not so convenient, and “female problems” were an embarrassing little secret.
Women who hit puberty in the 1960s and early 1970s who preferred pads instead of tampons had to use a device called a “sanitary belt” to hold their napkin in place. It was an elastic waistband that had clips in the front and back (not unlike the old-fashioned garter belts that held up ladies’ silk stockings) that gripped the long tabs at the back and front of the napkins, most of which had the thickness of a paperback novel.
Sure, for many years, condoms were kept behind drugstore counters. But when a teenage boy asked the clerk for a pack of Trojans in the 1960s, he wasn’t necessarily embarrassed as much as he was implying his studliness.
But at that time, those same drugstores kept sanitary napkins behind the counter as well. How many teenage girls cringed when they had to ask the young male clerk (who likely went to the same school as them) for a big ol’ box of Modess? To add further embarrassment to the situation, most stores didn’t have bags large enough to conceal a carton that was approximately the size of a toaster oven, so car-less consumers had to ride the bus or subway home trying to look nonchalant while clutching a 12-pack of pads.
Those in-between years
As times and fashions changed, companies scrambled to update the feminine napkin situation. One early alternative to the old belt-and-pulley system was the Panty-Kini — “a favorite of teenagers and college women.” (As an aside, the name of the product was obviously created by a male, since the “P” word to describe ladies’ underdrawers has frequently topped “Worst Words Ever”-type lists.)
This garment, made by Modess, was a “barely there brief” made of stretch lace moisture-proof fabric that featured sewn-in elastic loops to keep the pad in place.
Staying free of belts
In 1973, Stayfree revolutionized the feminine protection industry by introducing the first “beltless” pad. Even though it was still mattress-thick, it had an adhesive strip that kept it in place in ladies’ underpants, which was a major plus point since tight-fitting hip-hugger jeans were becoming a fashion staple at the time.
Eventually Kotex entered the beltless market with their New Freedom adhesive pads. As time and technology progressed, additional adhesive strips were added to the pads to prevent slippage, while more absorbent materials made a thinner maxi-pad a reality.
In the mid-1970s Procter & Gamble — a latecomer to the feminine products market — launched a direct-mail blitz, sending samples of their new “super-absorbent” tampon called Rely to millions of households. The enclosed literature bragged that the tampon “absorbed even the worry!”
Some aspects of Rely were appealing. The plastic applicator (for ease of insertion), and the “blooming” effect once the tampon started absorbing. Most tampons didn’t expand width-wise at the time. It spread out like a flower’s petals to minimize leakage. In addition, the company had added tiny bits of cellulose (sponge) and polyester beads, which enabled it to absorb “20 times its own weight in fluid.”
Because Rely was test-marketed in 1974, it wasn’t subject to the 1976 amendment by the FDA that categorized tampons as medical devices and were by law subject to extensive government testing. As it turned out, introducing synthetic-based objects into a woman’s intimate region caused havoc with some body chemistries, leading to a potentially deadly condition called Toxic Shock Syndrome. P&G recalled Rely in 1980 after a CDC report linked it to more cases of TSS than any other tampon.
Tampons for teens
Unless you read the magazines aimed toward teens in the 1960s and 70s (like Seventeen or Ingenue), you probably would have never known about Pursettes. They were introduced in the 1950s by the Campana Company of Batavia, Illinois, which originally made its fortune by making and selling Italian Balm, a hand lotion, during the Great Depression. Pursettes brand tampons were promoted as a teen’s “first” tampon; it was about the size of a lipstick, had no applicator, and employed a lubricated tip for painless insertion.
Pursettes were famous for their “testimonial” advertisements — real letters of praise sent by real teenage girls, back in the days when everyone could read cursive handwriting. See an example here and decide if it rings true.
The fear of “breaking a membrane” was a common selling point of tampons in the 1950s and 60s; many ads assured consumers that their product could be used by “single women.” (Apparently the word “virgin” was taboo at the time.) Pursettes also came with a discreet plastic case that could’ve contained…well, anything else besides tampons, lest a teen’s purse accidentally emptied onto the ground in front of her male friends.
What Pursettes didn’t have was the big bucks of Johnson & Johnson, who launched an $8 million advertising campaign in 1974 to promote the similarly applicator-less o.b. tampon to the U.S. market.
Take it easy on that square dancing!
The 1953 educational film Molly Grows Up is typical of what young girls were shown in elementary school as late as the 1960s, before the feminine products companies finally started filming updated, “hipper” versions. It happened on that Special Day when girls were ushered into one room and boys another for some mystery presentation.
Molly rushes into the kitchen after school one afternoon and announces to her mother “Guess what?! I started my first period!” “Well, what do ya know? Gol-ly…” Mom sets aside her dinner preparations and invites Molly to sit down and tell her all about it, as if Molly is describing hitting the winning run in a softball game.
Later that evening, while mom is hemming Molly’s skirt (because she’s “growing like a weed,” thanks to the onset of puberty) dad walks into the room. “Shall we tell him?” Mom asks her daughter. Molly nods and mom announces the menstrual news to dad.
Maybe it’s just me, but I would’ve spontaneously burst into flames if my mother had broadcast my onset of menses to other family members.
Later in the film, we’re treated to the “do’s” and “don’ts” of menstruation: DO wear your prettiest dress and pay special attention to your hair and nails. DON’T engage in strenuous activity like volleyball, and square dance only in moderation.
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