A Brief History of the Tampon

Female Tampon with disposable applicator
Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

The first tampons were made using a wide variety of materials found in nature. The prevailing thought seemed to be that if it was absorbent, chances are that it would work as a tampon. 

For instance, the earliest historical evidence of tampon use can be found in ancient Egyptian medical records that described tampons comprised of material derived from the papyrus plant. In the fifth century B.C., Greek women fashioned their protection by wrapping lint around a small piece of wood, according to writings of Hippocrates, a physician considered to be the father of western medicine. The Romans, meanwhile, used wool. Other materials have included paper, vegetable fibers, sponges, grass and cotton. 

But it wasn’t until 1929 that a physician named Dr. Earle Haas patented and invented the modern-day tampon (with applicator). He came up with the idea during a trip to California, where a friend told him how she was able to improvise a more comfortable and effective alternative to the commonly used and bulky external pads by simply inserting a piece of sponge on the inside, rather than outside. At the time, doctors were using plugs of cotton to staunch secretions and so he suspected a compressed form of cotton would absorb just as well. 

After a bit of experimenting, he settled on a design that featured a tightly bound strip of absorbent cotton attached to a string to allow for easy removal. To keep the tampon clean, the cotton came with an applicator tube that extended to push the cotton into place without the user having to touch it.

Haas filed for his first tampon patent on November 19, 1931, and originally described it as a "catamenial device," a term derived from the Greek word for monthly. The product name “Tampax,” which originated from “tampon” and “vaginal packs,” was also trademarked and later sold to businesswoman Gertrude Tendrich for $32,000. She would go on to form the Tampax company and begin mass production. Within a few years, the Tampax arrived on store shelves and by 1949 appeared in more than 50 magazines. 

Another similar and popular type of disposable tampon is the o.b. Tampon. Invented by German gynecologist Dr. Judith Esser-Mittag in the 1940’s, the o.b. Tampon was marketed as a “smarter” alternative to applicator tampons by emphasizing greater comfort and doing away with the need for an applicator. The tampon comes in the shape of a compressed, insertable pad designed to expand in all directions for better coverage and also features a concave tip so that a finger can be used to push it snugly into place. 

In the late 1940’s, Esser-Mittag partnered with another physician named Dr. Carl Hahn to start a company and market the o.b. Tampon, which stands for "one binde" or "without napkins" in German. The company was later sold to American conglomerate Johnson & Johnson. 

One major selling point the company touts on its website is the fact that a non-applicator tampon can be more environmentally friendly. How so? Johnson & Johnson states that 90% of the raw materials that go into o.b. tampons come from renewable resources.