[guest blog]they left a trail of blood behind them

(this article was emailed to me a few years ago…i’m unsure of the source)

“When they menstruated, they left a trail of blood behind them.”
What did European and American women use for menstruation in the 19th century and before? (With an addition about Muslim law.)

Many people ask me what women did in earlier times about menstruation. It’s usually impossible to say for sure for most cultures, although women have used tampons, pads (“rags” and commercial ones), sponges, grass and other absorbent materials probably for thousands of years.

In European cultures, the history of women, especially their everyday affairs, is inadequate; men ruled the roost and women were “good” for a limited number of things, few worth recording – at least, so thought the men.

Dr. Monica Green, of the Duke University history department, warned me of this lack of information right before I opened the actual museum, in 1994. I had written her after seeing her quoted in a New York Times article about ancient contraception.

Sabine Hering and Gudrun Maierhof, in Die unpäßliche Frau (“The Indisposed Woman,” Pfaffenweiler, Germany, 1991), write that German women almost never used commercial menstrual pads in the late 19th century.

They write,
“Most women seemed to have made their own pads or, like rural women, wore neither pads nor underpants. When they menstruated, they left a trail of blood behind them.” [My translation of "Die meisten Frauen scheinen sich mit selbstgenähten Stofftüchern beholfen zu haben oder wie die Frauen auf dem Lande gänzlich auf Einlagen oder Unterhosen verzichtet zu haben. Menstruierten sie, so zogen sie eine Blutspur hinter sich her." The authors don't say what their sources were.]

Read also more evidence for bleeding into clothes from another German source here.
I lived in Germany for 13 years and know that in the recent past Germans worried less about body odor than Americans did, who seem to object to any odor at all (I’m an American). And I think that a hundred and more years ago body odor was much more apparent. I suspect that the smell of menstrual blood was much more common and, I suspect, the sight of it, too (read more about menstrual odor).

Telling the story of women who fought as soldiers in the American Civil War, the authors of “They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War” (DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook Burgess; Louisiana State University Press, 2002) remark that most of these women were from working class backgrounds and couldn’t write, thus not leaving written records, which would be the case with menstruation if our German sources are correct – not that literate women would eagerly record theirs.

I wonder how this “open” menstruation influenced the behavior of men? It seems likely that women had to conceal both blood and odor before they were able to extensively participate in male business society. The relationship between men, women, menstruation and women’s health is unendingly complex – and interesting.

Extrapolating, my guess is that in “European” America and Europe a certain – large? – percentage of women in the 19th century and before (and into the 20th century) bled into their clothing, especially those from the rural and lower classes, and American women migrating westward, “pioneers.” (See a more detailed discussion, with pictures, of why I believe this is so.) After all, America and Europe were mostly rural, and the standards of living were low. American slaves might have also bled into their clothing. And there apparently are societies today, in India, for example, where women do not try to absorb their bleeding with anything special, or hide the process. But these are just my guesses.

By the way, Megan Hicks, Curator of Health and Medicine at the Powerhouse Museum, Australia’s largest, wrote me that cloth menstrual rags from a 19th-century women’s prison are on display at that prison. It could be that rags were used to maintain hygiene in this enclosed environment, something perhaps less necessary if the women were free. It seems likely that Australian customs for women of European origin were similar to the European ones of the time, just as in America.

Image Info: by Mayra Alpízar, a Cuban textile artist

Title: “Altar.” 1995 Technique: Applique and embroidery. Dimensions:110×156 cm.

Guest Writings, Menstrual Health, Musings


  1. I use cloth pads combined with a Keeper (like the Diva cup, but dffreient make — when I bought it it was the only one available). I made my own cloth pads at first made out of flannel, but when I went off the pill to TTC, my flow got a lot heavier and I couldn’t trust them with the heavy days so I bought some off of etsy (user name was pbjelly or something along those lines). I haven’t had a chance to test those out because I got pregnant right after (after 4 years of trying!), but now that I’ve had my baby, I’m going to try them out when my period returns.There are so many dffreient kinds of cloth and ways to make them so I think you have to experiment with what works for you, but I can say that I will never go back to disposables only ever again. No chafing, things can breathe, no crinkling, no stickies on your skin/hair, etc. The only time I’ve used them in the past 9ish years is when I was miscarrying (something about using reusables for that was really wrong) and as backup occasionally when I had to. Oh, and with my lochia currently, but planning on breaking out the cloth ASAP.Oh, and the cloth was awesome when I was pregnant for the discharge that I had, which was enough to want to wear something but not really that bad. Meant I wasn’t throwing stuff away (and not spending money!), I was comfortable, and none of the chafing and stuff that comes with wearing disposables for a long time.The comfort I feel with cloth is what led me to decide to cloth diaper my baby. If I notice that much of a difference when I only wear them for 5 days a month, imagine how much better it would be for him wearing them for 2+ years.

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