I hold in my hand a can marked “Fresca.” It’s not the grapefruit-flavored soft drink that I favored in my youth, but a “product of reason for feminine hygiene.” A picture of a beaming, early-20th-century nurse graces the front. “Fresca is not a medicine in any sense”, it warns, “and not a ‘Cure-All’, but has been called many times a boon to humanity and the knowledge of its merits spread through those who use it.”
“It’s douching powder,” Harry Finley says. “Douching was big business in the 20th century.”
Finley, 73, and I are in his New Carrollton basement, which from 1994 to 1998 housed the Museum of Menstruation. After the museum closed, Finley boxed up the items and put them in storage, where they remained until just a few weeks ago. They’re back home now; Finley is taking an inventory and readying the collection for donation. (To whom? Finley isn’t entirely sure.)
We chat as I pick my way through boxes and boxes packed with all manner of tampons, maxi pads, menstrual underwear, pain relievers, advertisements, booklets about menstruation and, yes, douching supplies.
Beginning in the 1980s, when he was a designer for U.S. government publications in Germany, Finley’s interest in menstruation and how it has been handled in popular culture, art and medicine has grown, particularly because he finds it fascinating that Americans are so squeamish about it.
The collection, which by Finley’s count has more than 5,000 individual pieces, is an interesting intersection of history and function and societal expectations. Amassing the collection and running the museum remains for Finley the most important thing he has done, and his efforts have garnered praise and vitriol alike. A story in the New York Times from 1998 called the museum’s website “an odd, funny and well-researched site (created by a man) on the history of menstruation as told by women around the world.” An anonymous letter writer from Wyoming was less enthralled: “The anger it stirred in our circle is enough to burn you at the stake figuratively speaking,” she wrote.
“There is something uniquely taboo about menstruation, much stronger than norms around reproduction or women’s bodies,” Chris Bobel, an associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the president of the Society for Menstrual Research, said in a phone interview. “We have a very uncomfortable relationship with women’s bodies, and we see menstruation as a problem that needs to be hidden or fixed,” said Bobel, who is also the author of “New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation.” This, she and some of her fellow scholars maintain, leads to poor body image and self-esteem issues.
Bobel told me that although a body of scholarship related to menstruation has been around for decades (the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research has existed since 1977), it’s been considered a fringe topic. These days, though, menstruation is enjoying a bit of a moment. Things like what is sometimes called the “tampon tax” on feminine hygiene products means that we are finally talking about menstruation and menstrual products in a larger, public sphere.
So, without further ado, here are 11 notable items from the Museum of Menstruation.
Once, women fashioned their own products such as these cloth pads, which were meant to be washed and used again and again. The first commercially available disposable pads in the United States were made by Johnson & Johnson in 1896, but they were not popular because they could not be advertised. The product was eventually discontinued.
Homemade tampons have been around for centuries. Fax tampons were some of the first commercially marketed tampons, probably from the late 1920s or early 1930s. These beauties were made of an absorbent material wrapped in gauze; they had no applicator and no string. Packaging information reminds readers that using a Fax tampon does not interfere with urination, as there are indeed separate orifices for menstruation and urination, and tampons are appropriate for “young or unmarried girls.” Laugh if you will, but Bobel told me that the concern about whether internal menstrual products might damage or perforate the hymen (and thereby compromise virginity) continues to exist.
The Henry K. Wampole company marketed a few varieties of “vaginal cones” as a curative for infection, including sexually transmitted maladies such as gonorrhea. One of the product’s ingredients, sodium borate, remains in use today; you might know it better as 20 Mule Team Borax, a laundry detergent. Picric acid, another ingredient, can be explosive; during World War I, it was used in artillery shells.
Menstrual aprons were worn under a dress or skirt as barrier protection. A 1922 ad from the Venus Sanitary Service enthuses that barrier products are, “Indispensable for Travel, Automobiling, Athletics, Emergency Uses.” The menstrual apron in Finley’s collection is a reproduction, made by Ann Wass, who holds a PhD in costume and textile history and is the acting museum manager at the Riversdale House Museum in Riverdale Park, Md. “I think the reason they weren’t marketed anymore is that they probably didn’t work very well,” Wass said in an email.
If you’re a woman younger than 40 or a man of any age, you will likely by mystified by the so-called “sanitary belt.” Before self-adhesive menstrual pads of the 1970s, disposable pads had tabs at each end which were attached to a belt like this one. Such words as “sanitary,” “fresh” and “dainty” frequently were used to describe products because, as Kissling explains in her book “Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation,” “One must keep menstruation concealed, to present one’s carefully constructed front of femininity from becoming damaged by the taint of menstrual pollution.”
In 1995, Margie Ostrower, a former retail buyer from the Greater New York City area,created Time of the Month Inc., and began to market a novelty snack food, PMS Crunch. There were two varieties available, basically chocolate mixed with nuts or other salty food. Ostrower often felt uncomfortable about the name. In an email, she told me, “As you can imagine, if you met someone for the first time and told them that product name and Time of the Month Inc. was your company, it could come off a bit strange.” Sadly, PMS Crunch is no longer on the market, although Ostrower is considering a comeback.
Products including “First Moon” encourage celebrating a girl’s first period by throwing a party. Bobel explained to me that such items are meant to offer a counter-narrative.
“Menstruation is part of a complex, systemic cycle,” she said. “It’s a way to send a message to girls that it’s not a hygienic crisis, but a transition from girlhood to womanhood, and really a cause for celebration.” This kit includes an instruction booklet, audio instruction tape, music cassette tape (it is, after all, from 1997), invitations, ribbon and ceremonial instruments, including speaking stone and candles.
Over the past few decades, the use of reusable supplies has been (at least for some) a form of “menstrual activism.”
“It’s been very much an intersection of different kinds of activists,” Bobel said. “There are environmentalists who dislike putting so much into landfills; there are consumer-rights advocates who are concerned about the possible risks associated with conventional products; and there are feminist health activists who promote body literacy and challenge the notion that menstruation is necessarily a problem that should be hidden, but rather, simply a fact of life.”
The pot doubles as a watering can; the spout aids with pouring the used soaking water over plants.
Lysol, that ubiquitous freshener of toddler cots, was once marketed as a douche. “Douches were presented for odor control, but they were also meant for contraception and could not be advertised that way,” Elizabeth Kissling, a professor of women’s and gender studies and communication studies at Eastern Washington University, told me in an email. In fact, the federal ban on birth control for married couples was not lifted until 1965. (The ban was lifted for single people in 1972.) Douches flush sperm into the cervix, so they’re not a good contraceptive, and ingredients in them can cause irritation and infection. When used as a douche, Lysol contributed to poisoning, and, in some cases, death.
Oh, look! A forlorn girl, sitting in a decimated patch of grass. What ever could be the matter? Pristeen knows: “The trickiest deodorant problem a girl has isn’t under her pretty little arms,” the ad warns, capitalizing on the fear of “feminine odor.” Despite the assurance that Pristeen works, “calmly and quietly, all day long,” the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends using no such sprays or deodorants, because they can irritate the skin, causing itching and burning,
These educational booklets, given away to girls to promote brand loyalty between 1949 and 1972, were produced by the Personal Products Co., which was also the maker of Stayfree pads and OB tampons. Along with information about the physiology of menstruation, the 1963 booklet explains, “So much happens when a girl reaches her teens. It’s the time in your life when you first know the thrill of buying your own clothes. When you wear make-up and nail polish for the first time.” The 1970 booklet informs the reader that “Someday, when you fall in love and marry, you will want to have children.” By 1972, the format changed to three friends writing letters to one another about the challenges of growing up, including menstruation.
You can still view the collection online at mum.org.