Origins of ordinary things: Sanitary pads

Sanitary pads are most common utilities used for menstrual hygiene. Net photo.

The sanitary pad is far and away the most widely used method of menstrual management.  Made up of mostly synthetic, bleached material, it is easy to use and easily accessible.

According to Femme International, before the disposable pad was invented, most women used rags, cotton, or sheep’s wool in their underwear to stem the flow of menstrual blood. Knitted pads, rabbit fur, even grass were all used by women to handle their periods.


The liner ends were extended front and back so as to fit through loops in a special girdle or belt worn beneath undergarments. This design was notorious for slipping either forward or back of the intended position.


The first ever sanitary pad was called Lister’s Towels, it was launched in 1896, and it was a complete failure because most women were too embarrassed to go and ask for a product that referenced their menstruation.


Although French nurses in World War 1 realised that the bandages they were using on wounded soldiers were also handy for absorbing their own blood, women around the rest of the developed world struggled to go into shops and ask for a product that would do such a thing. This is according to, an online dissemination platform.

The first pads were made from wood pulp bandages by nurses in France. It was very absorbent, and cheap enough to throw away afterwards. Commercial manufacturers borrowed this idea and the first disposable pads that were available for purchase came as early as 1888 – called the Southball pad. 

A few decades later, the pad was rebranded a few times — first as Nupak and then as Modess. These names made it easier for women to go into a shop and buy the product discreetly.

Later, an adhesive strip was placed on the bottom of the pad for attachment to the saddle of the panties, and this became a favoured method with women. The belted sanitary napkin quickly disappeared during the early 1980s.

Over the last 20 years, the sanitary pad industry has advanced by leaps and bounds. Gone are the days of bulky belts and diaper-like thickness. With the invention of more absorbent materials and better designs, pads are more comfortable and practical than ever. The invention of ‘wings’ keeps pads in place in the underwear, and the invention of ‘scented pads’ reduces odour.

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