Last night I needed some information on Mid-Victorian era terms for menstrual hygiene for my book Frail, so I did a few quick searches in Google Books, filtering between the years 1800 through 1880. Easy peasy,no? Well, it turns out that Regency and Victorian women didn’t have periods. This whole menstruation thing didn’t come into vogue until around 1880 and then every woman wanted to have a period and stores had to stock “napkins” and “belts”. I’m kidding, of course. I just couldn’t find much information in the years I needed.
So after hours of research on Google Books, I’m sharing with you my copious findings.
From Obstetrics: the Science and the Art, by Charles Delucena Meigs, published 1852:
“For the most part, as soon as the menses are perceived to begin to flow, the woman applies a T-bandage, consisting of a napkin, called the guard, folded like a cravat, which is pressed against the genitalia, while the ends are secured to a string or riband tied around the body above the hips; but I have seen some, not a few women, who assured me they had never used any other precaution than that of putting on a thicker petticoat for fear of the exposure of their condition. Such persons must be very slightly hemorrhagic, since the want of a guard-napkin would otherwise be sure to expose their condition by stains of blood upon their feet or stockings. Many female patients have assured me they never use less than a dozen napkins upon each catamenial occasion— and fifteen, and even twenty such changes are not very rare in the history of healthy menstruations. An ounce to a napkin is, perhaps, not an excessive computation.”
From A Manual of Bandaging: Adapted for Self-instruction, by Charles Henri Leonard, published 1876:
Use of Tampons from The Diseases of Woman, their causes and cure familiarly explained: with practical hints for their prevention, and for the preservation of female health, published in 1847
“In those severe cases, when the gush of blood is almost instantaneous, and so great as to endanger life in a very short time, we may employ, temporarily, mechanical means to prevent it. The best of which, and the most readily prepared, is called the tampon or plug. It may be made of linen rag, cotton, or sponge, in the form of a ball, and introduced into the vagina like a pessary, It should be large enough to completely fill up the passage, but must not be introduced more than about two inches, for fear of irritating and inflaming the mouth of the womb, which is then very sensitive.
A very good way to make the plug is, to cut out round pieces of soft linen cloth, then pass a stout thread through the middle of each and press them close together, till the mass is au inch thick. The string is convenient for pulling it out again, and should always be attached to every one. A small bag filled with tan, or ashes, or sawdust soaked in alum water, is also very excellent. These plugs should not be withdrawn in a hurry, unless severe symptoms supervene, and when they are removed, care must be taken not to disturb or irritate the parts. If the danger be imminent, and there be not time, or means to prepare a tampon, the lips and vulva should be firmly pressed together with the hand, till other means can be procured.”
Below are images of tampons from Minor Surgical Gynecology: a Manual of Uterine Diagnosis and the Lesser Technicalities of Gynecological Practice: For the Use of the Advanced Student and General Practitioner, by Paul Fortunatus Mundém, published 1880. These tampons are for medical use.
*Here’s an additional resource on Menstruation from Georgian London blog
45 Replies to “Tidbits on Mid-Victorian Era Menstrual Hygiene”
Fascinating! I’ve wondered a lot about this too. I had to provide my time-traveling heroine with a hormonal shot inducing amenorrhoea because I could not figure out women managed it. Though probably something like the above. Maybe the wealthy ones just took to their beds for a couple of days?
The other thing to recall, of course, is that married women, at least, spent much more time pregnant than today.
Very true! I started my research with a book about Victorian life, but all the references for menstruation were for the late Victorian. I thought I should test a few terms like “menstruation” + “belt” and came up with nothing. I needed to get the terminology right, so I kept searching. Very frustrating.
Menses . One needs to look more for the medical terms. Not that I have had much luck either except for books about bringing down the menses.
Several online sites mention women just letting the flow flow into petticoat etc. That really doesn’t sound right to me. They would have to wash their clothes more often than many were able to or else wear petticoats nasty and stiff with blood. Perhaps the man was right and those women had a scanty flow. There is a museum of menstruation on line .It holds that many women stuffed items up themselves to catch the flow. IT miust have really been a trial what with those light shifts, petticoats and gowns.
Jane Austen mentions buying flannel– cheap flannel. Her comments on it make me think she used it for her monthly rags. Rags were used up until about WWII when Kotex came out with a pad. Even though the pad could disintegrate easily and fall out of its covering, it was better than the alternative. Still, when I went to college the laundry list still included rags . I can’t remember the adjective used with the word rags though I think it something like hygienic.
All I could find were medical books. I exhausted every term I could think of. I realize that this blog isn’t the last say on this subject, but I was after concrete examples of non-slang terms. I couldn’t find girdle or belt, but I found T bandage, napkin, and pad. I did see illustrations of homemade tampons but they were for medical purposes. I believe a great many things were used for catch menstrual discharge, but that knowledge was passed along orally.
my great grandmother (born in 1879) told my mother that they used cloths that were like diapers & rinsed them out at night. She also said that pads were a great improvement.
I think you have a fabulous blog. It is interesting though not my usual era. I agree I think there wasn’t much written about it earlier because it was considered indelicate to mention menses in public except in medical books. Mothers were supposed to inform their daughters. There are quite a few book s that cover bringing down the menses– sometimes this is an euphemism for abortion and sometimes a way to treat hysteria in females, Though the Victorians at one time were much more careful about what a young lady could say or even think about, another part of the society was informing the public through books on health.. Some even recommended one sit naked in a room with the windows uncovered to get the benefit of sunlight. One could talk about many delicate subjects in books on health or medicine.
I wonder if Mrs.Parkes mentions the subject in her domestic advice to new brides?
Thank you, Nancy! I just added images of the tampons to the blog, as well as a link to the medical usage.
I think so! @Sarah
This is what I’ve found, Susanna, though not so neatly expressed. The system was much like the sanitary belts and napkins common when I was young, with rags instead of napkins. The rags didn’t need to be rough. They could be hemmed cloth and folded to be thick. I too have always doubted the idea that women simply let it leak. As someone said, they must have spent all their time sitting or lying, and even so, the staining of clothes would be a much bigger hassle than washing the “rags.”
Thank you so much for this! I’m glad we are clearing up this annoyingly vague issue.
LMAO I actually fell for that first paragraph! Why you may ask? Because I’ve tried to research this up many times, plus asked authors about it and still couldn’t find any answers, so yes, even if I’m smart as heckler I would have believed that women didn’t have menstrual cycles of told it the way you did, as an author on research. But I did suspect that rags were used since my grandma said they used to use rags as young girls when the lived in the jungle.
It’s so ridiculous! I thought I would find one motherly resource. There are so many volumes dispensing advice to young women about everything except how to cope with their monthly cycle.
I found more info on tampons and updated the blog post. Thanks for your patience.
I looked this up as well, for my time travel novel. I discovered that Kotex was invented in time for my heroine to make use of them in the 20s. However, she’ll have to stock up when she goes further back in time during book 2.
@Tia Ooh! Can I read book 2! Please. Please.
I have always wondered about this too. My mother, born in 1909, said she used rags. She did not like to talk about it either! However, women had many more pregnancies in the past and breastfeeding can keep the period from returning for at least a year.
Thanks for commenting! I probably should find a true research book on the subject instead of searching primary source material. Such a taboo topic it seems 🙂
Interesting blog, and I so agree about rags being used for menses, like others I could not imagine just allowing blood to flow into your petticoats and down your legs. I would also imagine it was not mentioned in an sort of conversation, I would imagine someone whether it was a mother, nanny etc would talk to girls reaching that age. But that is onlyh a guess.
I also believe women in the late Georgian and Regency period wore some form of underwear, at least the more wealthy, I did read somewhere, although I can’t remember where now that because of the thin material whicih was quite see through they wore skin coloured tight breeches type of underwear because of the sheerness of dresses wherein the sunlight their legs were visible when out and about.
My great grandmother (born about 1820 i think) was married at 18 and had 16 children, all of whom lived. She never had a period after marriage, and the children were roughly two years apart. She was always either pregnant or breastfeeding! I myself used sponges as tampons, so as not to litter or pollute – very successfully for the last several years before menopause. Little makeup sponges are simple to rinse out, and to retrieve as well.
I need to know, for a novel set in Victorian times about illegitimate babies, what woman would have called their periods when speaking about them. Surely not ‘menses’ – ‘on the rags’ maybe?
Didn’t know about tampons. Thanks. I don’t recall the source but in researching sweat shops, I read that women stood working with no protection when they had their periods. They put straw on the floor to catch whatever made it past drawers and petticoats.
Thank you for this interesting bit of information. I’ll add just a little more. I’m age 72. I have several lovely trunks left to me buy my mother. She was born in 1915. I have several glass items that were wrapped in a lovely soft fabric ( perhaps linen) that my mom said were “sanitary napkins” that she used as a very young girl as did my grandmother. They are perhaps a little larger in square inches than the old baby diapers that were used when i was a baby (1944). I suspect this type was used in all of the USA. My family is in Atchison, Kansas. The procedure was to wear the napkin in the underpants held in place with safety pins. When soiled it would be soaked in cold water to remove matter then washed in wringer washer.
It is fun to show special friends what our grandmothers wore for monthly events.
Thank you so much for this information! Thank goodness the days of safety pins are behind us. How interesting that these items were passed down.
How fascinating. I too am attempting to write a book based on the lives of my poor ancestors. I was wondering just how soon they might suspect they were pregnant.
Good work ladies!
Thank you so much for this. I’m writing a book based on my family’s stories from the Civil War era and wondered how to deal with this when two young girls have their first periods. They live in the Missouri Ozarks but aren’t total bumpkins nor are they completely isolated from the rest of the world, however the people around them are mainly hillbillies. It’s a balancing act and I’m not sure I’m capable of juggling all the eggs and chainsaws involved.
I believe a common expression in the early years of the 20th century was ‘sh’e got her rags up’
My grandmother, born in 1892, mentioned that her aunts referred to sanitary napkins as ‘dilly rags’!
In reference to native american women, I’ve heard that all the women on their monthy would sit in a lodge together. It was believed that the spirits paid extra attention to women at this time and they were put in charge of making important tribal decisions.
How interesting. Thank you for this!
I am 73. My grandma was born in 1882. No one told her about menstruation so when she began her period, at abt. age 16, she became hysterical, thought she was dying. She ran to her older sister, who told her what was happening. I think it was called the curse in those days. She used rags, however I have a pair of her underwear. Completely open in the crotch, like a triangle of cloth had been cut out. She must have contrived a belt of cloth, used safety pins to hold it all together. My own mom, born in 1912, used homemade rags in her underpants, since hers had a crotch, like now. She married in 1930, aged 17; my dad grew up with his mom, sisters used lengths of sheeting, which were dropped into a bucket of cold water every month. He told mom that she was to buy Kotex, no matter how poor they were, he couldn’t stand for her to do the alternative. I grew up with elastic belts, pads fastened with safety pins. I never used tampons as it was unseemly for virgins to use them. Plus, you know all these women were never told exactly what to expect on their wedding night. Poor souls.
Thank you so much for sharing this. I really appreciate it. Sorry I was so slow moderating your comment. I’ve been pretty backed up with holiday stuff. Again, thank you — Susanna
Susanna, this is a great, useful resource. Thank you so much! I knew about the use of hygiene belts and such, but I didn’t realize that tampons went back so far. My mother once told me that they were invented during the first World War by nurses who just didn’t have time to cope with their period the way earlier women had. Which, in retrospect, is damned silly given how physically (and constantly) most earlier women were always working. This particular information may never make it into my writing, but it’s always nice to know a little more about how people in the era I write about actually lived their daily lives 🙂
I’ve come across your blog in doing research for ladies’ training at the living history museum where I work. What is most helpful is more links to more books in order to send me down more rabbit holes (thanks a lot).
I would recommend the term “catamenial” for future exploration. The patents alone will be enough to give you the shivers. “Catamenial sack” and “catamenial bandage” will serve you quite nicely. And it’s true, the only real instructions and information you get prior to 1900 is from male physicians, always a good time. There are a few women who write about it but they are few and far between.
This is a kind of thong or menstrual belt, and a type of sanitary towel, made of shavings.You can use the translator, because the site is in Russian.
I too grew up with menstrual belts and long tailed napkins. Got my first period one morning in 6th grade. Mom gave me a simple explanation, but apparently I thought my first period had ended by the third day, when in reality it had just slowed during the night. Went to school without protection, and soon discovered that 3 days do not a period make! Dropped a note on the teacher’s desk to ask if I could go home, because there was no way I was going to explain it to her out loud. DECADES later, one of my female classmates told me how much the girls in the class envied me that day because I had “started” so early! I was an active, tree-climbing tomboy, so keeping the pads in place could be tricky. I usually used the toothed clips but also tied a knot in the tails of the pads to keep them from coming loose. The belts would twist and stretch out, and it was essential that you mashed that pad close to the action. Ruined underwear was a fact of life. At some point I acquired sanitary underpants with the cutesy name of “Santy-Panty”. The waterproof crotch helped some, but it was crinkly and stiff! In high school, I asked Mom about tampons, and she had to ask the doctor if it was okay for a virgin to use them. She had tried herself and never could get them in, so she was a bit hesitant to let me try, but I was one determined kid! I pretty much did a high-five with her when I succeeded! In the 1950s and 60s, it wasn’t something you talked about except in whispers with your female friends or close female relatives. You just handled it. My mom didn’t use euphemisms for menstruation, but at least in the 1950s other girls used coy phrases like, “Aunt Flo came to visit” or “I’ve got the curse” or “the monthlies” or “the Red Tide”. Accidents happened in school now and then, and it wasn’t that unusual for one girl to tell another, “You’ve got something on your skirt”. Going home with your sweater tied around your waist wasn’t unheard of. Early on, older women would tell us that we couldn’t swim because it would “stop the flow” or we’d “get a chill”, but by the late 1950s, Kotex was trying to discredit all those old wives’ tales and encourage girls to go ahead and take baths and showers and be active during their periods. As I recall, I was singularly unimpressed with all the “now you’re a young lady” pamphlets that went with the Kotex story of menstruation that was marketed to Scout troops and hesitant moms at the time. Because we really didn’t talk about the facts of life, misinformation abounded among young girls and drove us to furtive research in the library.
Thanks @Clare! “Santy-Panty” sounds dreadful. Ugh! Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment. Very appreciated.
I’m a 65yo Aussie, but when I was 22 and suffering greatly from endometriosis, an Italian nurse introduced me to using sponges. I bought whole sea sponges at the craft store and some makeup sponges to trial the difference.
The sea sponges worked better because I could cut them to size. Larger for heavy days and nights, thinner for lighter days.
I never had the expense again of buying pads, tampons, etc for monthly periods.
Such a pity today’s young women don’t use sponges.
I guess it’s because health practitioners feel they are unhygienic because they need to be washed and reused. But so do diaphragms or those drippy cups (whatever they are called).
What’s the difference?
When I was away from the home I carried two tiny clip lock plastic bags in my purse. One had clean dry sponges while the other was for used sponges if I wasn’t able to rinse and reuse immediately.
It’s all about having good personal hygiene and that’s something we should all have anyway.
That is really cool. Thanks for sharing!
It is a late Victorian source, but you should look up the book A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Victoria Lincoln. The author has a lot to say on this subject that is very interesting.
The expression “on the rag” was in common use in northern California about 1970. I will admit I was embarrassed when a girl in a high school class I was teaching announced her condition in a loud voice to force me into giving her a bathroom pass, but it surely was an occasion that has stuck in my mind.
By the way, I heard it was the nurses during World War I who swiped the dressings intended for wounds that started the change from rags to a commercial product.
“By the way, I heard it was the nurses during World War I who swiped the dressings intended for wounds that started the change from rags to a commercial product.” That’s fascinating!
70 Y0 Grandfather here with a story. I lived on the same dormitory floor with a girl who had refused to go out with me. She came back on a Sunday and her period started and she did not have her “stuff”. I offered to go to the drugstore and get what she needed (days of belts and pads). I got what she needed and brought it back. She decided I had “the right stuff” and we are still married. She asked me why I wasn’t embarrassed and I said “its almost like boasting that a girl lets you get VERY CLOSE. She loved the story
Awww, that’s a sweet story. Thanks for sharing. And congrats on a long, happy marriage!
My grandmother, born in 1877, had several sisters (and one younger brother). She and her sisters went to great lengths to hide their menstrual rags from the males in the family while they were washing out and drying them. There was just a lot of embarrassment over all this stuff. It wasn’t talked about. Depending on where you lived, it could be tricky. They were farm girls. There was also a tendency to treat that week a lot like an illness, even by the time I “started” in the 1950s. It was more common to complain of cramps, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, and generally being “unwell” during your period. We were excused from dressing out for gym classes, or actively participating. Girls were still being treated like their periods kind of weakened them, contributed to anemia, or made them susceptible to “catching a chill”. Older women referred to it as “your monthlies” but generally only in a whisper. As a kid, you picked up on the hush-hush atmosphere around menstruation, but I thought the euphemisms were kind of silly. I was generally insulted by the whole process because I certainly hadn’t done anything wrong, and it was a new experience to be ashamed of being female. It was really toxic to have to hide/ignore/feign ignorance/avoid any conversation about the whole subject. Also, my grandmother’s generation linked it all to the Biblical curse of Eve, adding to the notion that women “deserved” this inconvenience and shame. You just learned to handle your own periods, but you were always self-conscious about them.
Those poor sisters trying to hide those rags. How sad. You’re so right about the shaming of something natural. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.