Women have been menstruating as long as we’ve been walking the earth. What the cave-women did during their menstrual cycle is obviously not documented, but basically back in the “olden days”, as now, women have had 4 main options.
Do nothing, and bleed freely.
Insert something into the vagina to absorb the flow
Insert something into the vagina to help direct the flow cleanly out of the vagina to an external catchment device.
Place something against the vulva externally to catch the flow.
Apparently ancient Egyptian women used papyrus and other such things to create early tampons, and that they would have used cloth pads of some form (and a discussion here). Women in Greece supposedly used wooden sticks wrapped with lint. It is likely that menstrual products of the past ranged from animal skins, grasses & mosses, sea sponges, wool, ash, wood shavings, sheep skins, and pieces of cloth. Some women have even fashioned their own disposable pads from thin cloth stuffed with cotton wool.
There were also “catamenial sacks” of many types, that appear to be a pouch/collection pad suspended between the thighs that was used to collect the blood.
There seems to be evidence that even up until disposable pads became popular, that some women did nothing to collect menstrual blood, and instead let it flow. Either by simply not wearing anything and going about their day to day lives like that – or by being separated in a “Menstrual Hut” or other private place, where they simply sit there and bleed onto the ground. Some women today choose to “Free bleed” too. Others argue that women would have at least used something to collect it, because we’re intelligent and resourceful enough to be able to find something and it would have been messy and inconvenient to have just let it flow (and not all women would have been able to go away and sit in a menstrual hut for the duration of their bleeding time). Why, surely at some point early on, someone discovered that the blood was coming from a crevice that could be plugged up with something to slow the flow, or that putting something against that area could catch that blood!….. Even if they had no idea what it was, where exactly it was coming from or why.
It’s worth remembering that there were times in our history where bathing was considered to make you ill, so it is entirely possible that many women simply did just bleed into their clothes – as a perfectly normal and natural thing to do. I would imagine that it is only when society conventions required the collection and invisibility of menstrual blood that it became something embarrassing and taboo….and before then it was simply a matter of life. Remembering also that in a pre-industrial society sitting around was not as common as it is now, so a woman standing in a field without menstrual protection is going to have fewer soiled clothes than one sitting at a computer all day…. and I suppose in those days washing your legs is easier than getting blood stains off clothing/fabric. (Which makes you wonder if items like the Menstrual Apron were examples of products designed to protect clothing from being stained by blood, rather than being focused on providing affective catchment/containment for it). Plus it’s also worth noting that with more physical labour, less nutrition, longer breast feeding and more children – women would have generally experienced less menstrual cycles than women today do.
It is impossible to give an accurate historical run down of what women have used over the ages, because not only is it unknown what women used in most cases, unlike clothing,menstrual protection was not something that was often documented. Also, due to the nature of it being somewhat “whatever you can find to soak up blood”, and not a huge commercial industry as it is now, it can’t be pinpointed to being representative of a particular time, region or country,unlike fashion or other historical things.
The topic of menstruation has almost always been taboo in an age where the majority of people can write, and such a mundane aspect of a woman’s life was probably not important enough for people (particularly men) to document… it’s not surprising there is little documentation of what women used. Think about it – in modern biographies and autobiographies do they mention the woman’s menstrual gear of choice? no… (not unless there was something particularly different/interesting about it) it would be like documenting how you went to the toilet or blew your nose. Really only those of us who show an interest in the topic want to actually talk about it and know what was used…. How can women have known than hundreds of years later, we’d be curious :)
What We do know
(Or at least, what I know)
Since underwear as we know it (tight fitting bikini style briefs) is only a fairly recent invention too (Somewhere in the 1930s-1950s), most externally absorbing/collecting menstrual apparatus would have most likely been “belted” – held in place by use of some sort of arrangement that secured around the waist/hips/legs etc. of the wearer – as undergarments themselves were loose fitting and not able to hold the pads in place. Commercial disposable pads didn’t come onto the scene until about 1888 or 1895. Early disposable pads were not stick on, as they are today – they were instead longer and were usually held in place at the front and back by a reusable menstrual “belt”. Even after they were commercially available, they were too expensive for many women to afford. It also took women several years to be able to comfortably buy these products. One advertising company thought of a solution to the problem with tampons, and allowed women to place money into a box (so that the woman would not have to speak to the clerk to ask for them) and take a box from the counter themselves. Which doesn’t sound all that revolutionary, but it was in those days. So it took several years for disposable products to become commonplace, even after they were available.
Nurses in the first world war created the first disposable pads by taking bandages and forming those into a pad they could throw away. The early pad companies were actually companies making bandages, and moved into pad making.