This month we are going to be exploring The Victorians and how they dealt with their periods! I always remember wondering how they coped with their enormous gowns and the anxiety of having an accident. Here I will give you a brief understanding of how they navigated the way through the unpredictable whirlwind of menstruation.
The Victorian period was the first era where adverts for sanitary products became mainstream. Even so, they were often placed in the back pages of catalogues for ultimate discreetness. Generally speaking, women would use cloth pads which were tied or sometimes buttoned to belts to soak up the blood. These were incredibly uncomfortable inventions and often the cloth would chafe the inside of the woman’s thighs, especially if it was soaked in blood. In the American West (the 1870s) women held their pads up with suspenders. Another method which was used was to fold large linen squares (linen wasn’t all that absorbent) into rectangles or to fold a larger piece of linen into one compact rectangle, wedged between the thighs which only succeeded in remaining there by the woman clenching her thighs. It could be argued that this was the reason for the dainty steps a woman used to take as she walked from one place to another. One of the greatest inventions for a woman during this time was the ‘bloomer’ or ”drawers’, otherwise known as ‘nether garments’. This helped propel the luxury that was the freedom of movement and the inclusion of women in sporting activities. It is also important to remember that women in the Victorian period generally menstruated a lot less than the women of today. This is due to a combination of shorter lifespans and an increase in pregnancies that a woman would have throughout her lifetime. Women who were also homeless or incredibly poor were not able to eat regularly or to take care of their bodies properly, and this would stop menstruation altogether. In 1896 the Lister’s Towels emerged in America. These were the first disposable sanitary napkin. To begin with they were designed for women who had just given birth, to soak up any postpartum blood but eventually morphed into sanitary care products. These, however, were not very popular and women generally tended to stick to their homemade pads which they pinned to their underwear. Towards the end of the 19th century there was the introduction of the sanitary belt. These were used between the 1890s and 1970s.
Many doctors and physicists believed that menstruation made women unfit to do undertake any sort of task, and rendered them either incapable or mentally unwell. For example, Dr James MacGrogor wrote in 1869 that during menstruation, ‘women were invalids, unfit for any great mental or physical labour’. Medically, the idea of the four humours was popularly believed- these were blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. These needed to be properly balanced out to maintain a person’s health and well being. This idea then fed into the view that a woman’s period was an expression of disposing of superfluous blood, that is; blood that was not needed anymore. If women had an irregular period, then it was taught that this was stagnant blood that would result in all manner of illnesses. Eggs were believed to be descended from the ovaries only as a result of intercourse. There were many activities which were thought to stop a woman’s flow like getting a chill. The fact that women menstruated was proof in the scientific realm that they were not a man’s equal which was then used against them to reinforce the notion that they were irrational human beings. Ultimately, women did not have the knowledge they needed to truly understand how their bodies worked. As a result, they were simply ignorant through no fault of their own (having curiosity about one’s own body was considered unfeminine and unladylike- this went as far as not being able to even see their bodies, washing undercover etc.) especially those who were at the top of the social ladder such as royalty. They saw it as an inconvenience that occurred every month, and if her monthly bleed did not come then she had fallen pregnant and successfully fulfilled one’s duty- what more was there to know?
Towards the end of the 19th century there was the introduction of the sanitary belt. These were used between the 1890s and 1970s.
Fun fact: The term ‘feminine hygiene’ was invented in the Victorian Period. Most likely because they were seen as dirty and unclean