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Who invented tampons?

Discover the unique history of tampons in the last century

Tampons, as we know them today, were invented in 1931 by a male physician based in America,  Dr. Earle Haas. But it took decades of trial and error to invent effective modern tampons that truly address the needs of women around the world. Considering that over 300 million women and people with periods are menstruating on any given day, tampons (and other period products) are a necessity. Now that we know who invented tampons, we can dive into the turbulent history of tampons as it unfolded each decade. From major design innovations during World War II to the tampon protests of the ‘80s, there’s so much to unpack!

 

When were tampons invented?

Modern tampons were invented in 1931 – not too long ago! When we say “modern tampons” we’re referring to cylindrical cotton and viscose tampons with a string attached. Nevertheless, women around the world have created their own tampon-like devices for thousands of years.

In the 15th century, Egyptian women used softened papyrus wood as a tampon while Hawaiian women used the furry part of the native hapu’u fern. And those aren’t the only creative tampon innovations from the past. Women in ancient Japan fashioned tampons out of small bandages and women in Equatorial Africa used rolls of grass.

Why were tampons invented?

As a highly experienced medical physician and loving husband, Dr. Earle Haas couldn’t shake the desire to develop a period product for his wife and other women. That’s why he chose to put in the hours and come up with an effective design that actually absorbs period blood. In his eyes, the available products were essentially rags and women deserved a far more comfortable option. Long story short, Haas had our backs.

Although Haas had the right idea, he was met with plenty of social challenges. In the 1930s, the idea of a woman touching herself to insert a tampon was not widely accepted. What if they felt sexual pleasure? What if their hymen broke? It just wasn’t fathomable at this conservative time in history, especially because women were considered “pure and sacred” before marriage.

Considering the societal concerns around tampon use for pleasure, Haas developed a tampon with a tube-shaped applicator. That way, women wouldn’t have to “touch” themselves.

The tampon history timeline

Although tampons with a string attached were first seen in nineteenth-century Europe, they were typically used as contraceptives. At the time, doctors believed you could wear them to reduce the chances of sperm entering a women’s reproductive tubes and fertilising eggs. However, they couldn’t be more wrong. As the tampon history timeline suggests, the best use for tampons is absorbing menstrual blood.

 

LL Tampon Timeline Book (1)

  • In the early 1870s, the first advertisements for menstrual products appeared primarily in print media. Although these ads were mostly for reusable menstrual pads, they normalised the idea of marketing period products for mass consumption. At the time, doctors were prescribing tampons to absorb vaginal discharge.
  • In 1879, the British Medical Journal published an article on one of the first tampon applicator designs made of glass and wood. It’s not yet known how effective this device was, but the good news is that tampons aren’t made of glass and wood anymore.

  • Dr Paul Mundé, an American gynaecologist, defined several different uses for a tampon and yet somehow the idea of using them for menstruation still wasn’t on the cards. Firstly, he considered tampons a carrier device for applying medicine to the cervix or vagina. Among other uses, tampons were also considered devices for maintaining the shape of the cervix and preventing prolapse.

  • In the 1900s, doctors still generally used tampons to treat gynaecological infections. The tampons contained capsules of antiseptic agents that you could break open before inserting the tampon. At the time, tampons were for hospital use only and the nurses typically made them in-house.

  • Rumour has it that John Williamson, an employee at a major personal care product corporation, pitched the idea of creating an insertable period product back in 1920. Williamson’s great idea was to poke small holes in a condom and stuff the absorbent portion of a pad inside it. That way, if a woman inserted this device in her vagina, the condom would make it easy to slide in and the absorbent materials would control menstrual flow. In all honesty, Williamson was on to something! Unfortunately, his idea was eventually rejected.

  • It’s the year we’ve all been waiting for: 1931. Earle Haas, a physician based in the US, developed a cardboard applicator tampon designed to absorb menstrual blood. The tampon was made of a thick strip of cotton attached to a string for easy removal.
  • In 1933, Haas patented his device and sold it to a businesswoman by the name of Gertrude Tendrich for $32 000. She later established her own tampon brand.

 

  • The 40s welcomed a major shift in the need for reliable menstrual products. World War II (1939 – 1945) resulted in more women taking on physically intensive labour while men were at war. Naturally, tampons gained popularity because they effectively minimise period leakage. However, they were still delivered in discreet packaging by mail.
  • By 1945, tampons had become popular enough for new and exciting innovations to enter the market. Dr Judith Esser-Mittag, a German gynaecologist, designed a non-applicator tampon known as the “digital tampon”. As the name suggests, you only needed one finger (or digit) to insert the tampon. Interestingly, this tampon design became an increasingly popular option due to its eco-friendly nature.

  • Lil-Lets was founded in 1954 based on Dr Esser-Mittag’s ground-breaking tampon design. Through extensive research, she was able to create an innovative widthways design made to fit women perfectly. Initially, there were two absorbency options available for varied menstrual flows: regular and super. With a focus on premium tampon products, Lil-Lets was able to establish itself as a leader in the industry for several decades. 

Learn more about us and how we got where we are today.

  • The ‘60s marked the major boom of several global companies, including Lil-Lets, creating their own tampon designs. Interestingly, all these designs closely resemble Haas’s OG invention. As the age-old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Haas’s design is still the blueprint to this day.

  • After the tampon boom of the ‘60s, companies started to tweak and improve their product designs. We also began to see more practical tampon shapes and removal strings. Some companies even chose to design tampons with two separate strings to grab for easy removal.
  • In 1975, the first “super absorbent” teabag-shaped tampon entered the market. Although the product was a hit among young women, many questioned how it could possibly be so effective. As suspicions grew, the Berkeley University Women’s Health Collective accused the manufacturers of this tampon of withholding information about the product. There was a desire to know more about what they were putting inside their bodies!

 

  • The US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) released shocking figures into the number of menstrual-related cases of toxic shock syndrome. Up to 100 cases were reported in a single year with significant outbreaks in Denver, Colorado. This ultimately lead to the first super absorbent tampon being pulled off the market.
  • Toxic shock syndrome is caused by the bacteria ‘Staphlyococcus aureus’, which normally live harmlessly on the skin, or in the bodies of about one third of the population. In rare cases, certain strains of these bacteria can produce toxins (poisons) that cause TSS. It's worth knowing anyone can get TSS, men, women, and children, with approximately half of all cases being menstrual related. It's worth knowing that TSS symptoms can develop very quickly and may seem like flu, with some people developing a sudden high fever, dizziness, fainting, vomiting, diarrhoea, sunburn-like rashes, sore throat, or muscle ache. However, these symptoms might not occur all at the same time. 

From 1989 companies were required to advise women to use the least absorbent tampon for their flow to help reduce the risk of TSS and therefore a sizing and absorbency system was established. This system of droplet symbols on tampon packs is still used today. 

Although the ‘80s was a chaotic time for the tampon industry, it wasn’t all bad news. In 1983 tampons went to space for the first time with Sally Ride, an American astronaut. For her weeklong trip, the engineers packed a whopping 100 tampons!

  • By the late ‘90s, there was rising concern about the ingredients used to make tampons. Don’t worry though — most commercial brands, including Lil-Lets, mass-produced chlorine-free products. The absorbent materials used to make Lil-Lets tampons, pads, and pantyliners are purified through various chlorine-free processes making them super hygienic and free of impurities.

 

  • Since the 2000s, it’s become far less taboo to talk about periods and hygiene. There’s nothing to hide anymore and all cards are on the table. Women needed all sorts of products to handle menstruation and daily intimate hygiene. Mirroring this major societal shift, Lil-Lets became the first period product company to cross all sectors of the intimate hygiene market.  As of 2000, Lil-Lets has expanded and now produces a wide range of period products such as tampons, pads, pantyliners and reusable products so you can choose what works for you!

Driven by the popular David Attenborough documentary Blue Planet, which educated audiences around the impact of plastic pollution on the world, we saw consumers priorities change, wanting to play their part in reducing single use plastic usage. We also saw retailers reviewing their packaging and plastic waste, especially in the period care aisles. A few key retailers in 2019 decided to remove single-use plastic applicators from all own brand tampon lines due to the goal of removing non-recyclable plastics from the shelves. 

Further to this, Lil-Lets drove the plastic reduction message hard within successful campaigns from 2018, educating our audiences about switching to the non-applicator tampon format which enables people to reduce their period plastic! We also discontinued our plastic applicator tampon range in 2021 showing our commitment to supporting the planet.

A big step in the right direction for a better planet, wouldn't you agree?

 

  • Fun fact: tampons are now used by over 100 million women across the globe. Considering that tampons haven’t fully infiltrated every market, there’s still room for these numbers to grow. Whether it’s a cardboard applicator tampon or non-applicator tampon, sales have skyrocketed, especially in developed countries with greater access to period products and education.

Choose from our wide range of period products, from non-applicator tampons to our reusable applicator.

Tampons today: Look how far we’ve come

We have come a long way since the early days of tampons. From non-applicator tampons to organic tampons, there are plenty of options for women and people with periods. But at the end of the day, the future of tampon use is a hot debate, especially with innovations such as menstrual cups & reusable applicators. As we all become more environmentally conscious, demand for products that align with these values is a top priority.

Lil-Lets non-applicator tampons are a great example of period products made with less plastic.

Considering the need for more sustainable products, our non-applicator range has these amazing qualities:

  • 100% free from fragrances, dies and chlorine bleach

  • Quality tampons made from *96% less plastic than products with equivalent absorbency

  • Smartfit™ technology that expands for amazing comfort, fit and protection

  • Sustainable tampon wrappers made from NatureFlex™ — a wood pulp-based material

  • A range of absorbencies to suit your flow, leaving you feeling dry and comfortable

Everyone should be able to manage their period without exposure to harsh chemicals. It’s our job to make using tampons a breeze.

* 94- 96% less plastic when comparing equivalent absorbency tampons from the Lil-Lets non-applicator range to the leading brand compact plastic applicator ranges.

 

 

 

 

LL Non Applicator Finger (1)

Frequently Asked Questions

Who created tampons?

Earle Haas created the modern design for menstrual tampons in 1931. This same design is still used by most commercial tampon brands today.

What were tampons originally invented for?

Tampons were originally invented to help stop bleeding caused by injuries and to apply medication. However, in the early 1920s, a basic tampon was invented specifically to manage blood flow from menstruation. These basic tampons were less practical and comfortable than modern tampons and often leaked.

 

When were tampons first sold?

Tampons were first sold in 1933 and were inspired by Earle Haas’s design. From the mid-1930s, they were widely available for purchase in pharmacies and drugstores.

What did they use as tampons in the old days?

In the old days, women typically used a range of rolled-up absorbent materials as tampons. For example, ancient Greek and Roman women would wrap lint around a small piece of wood and insert it into the vagina. Alternatively, in ancient Japan women would use paper for intimate hygiene.

Where did tampons get their name?

Tampons got their name from the medieval French word “tampion”. A tampion is a cloth used to stop liquid from flowing through a hole or plug.

When did tampons become popular?

Tampons became popular in the 1930s after becoming available for purchase in stores. The product also experienced a wave of popularity in the 1940s during World War II as women were doing more labour-intensive work that warranted period leak protection. Another peak in popularity for tampons was the 1960s – plenty of companies released novel designs at this time.

Who invented cardboard tampons?

Earle Haas invented cardboard tampon applicators. Although the applicator was made of sturdy cardboard, the absorbent part of the tampon was cotton and rayon.

Did a man invent tampons?

In simple terms, a man did invent tampons. Earle Haas is credited for the modern design of tampons. However, the idea of tampon-like devices can be traced back multiple centuries. Variations of this invention have been developed by both men and women.

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