A Brief History of the Tampon

Tampon with applicator. Creative Commons

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 comes from 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 wool, paper, vegetable fibers, sponges, grass, and later cotton. 

It wasn’t until 1929 that a physician named Earle Haas patented and invented the modern-day tampon (with applicator). The idea came about during a trip out to California, where a friend told him how she was able to improvise a more comfortable alternative to the commonly used, but bulky external pads simply by inserting a piece of sponge on the inside, rather than outside. At the time, doctors were using plugs of cotton to staunch secretions 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 that allows 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, 1933, with a description for a "catamenial device," derived from the Greek word for monthly. “Tampax,” which originated from “tampon” and “vaginal packs,” was also trademarked and later sold to Gertrude Tendrich, a businesswoman, who would go on to form the Tampax company and begin mass production.

By the mid-1930’s, the Tampax had arrived on store shelves. 

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 doctor, 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 Johnson & Johnson. 

One major selling point the company touts on its website is that a non-applicator tampon is also more environmentally friendly. Johnson & Johnson state that 90% of the raw materials that goes into o.b. tampons come from renewable resources. 

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Bellis, Mary. "A Brief History of the Tampon." ThoughtCo, Apr. 19, 2017, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-tampon-4018968. Bellis, Mary. (2017, April 19). A Brief History of the Tampon. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-tampon-4018968 Bellis, Mary. "A Brief History of the Tampon." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-tampon-4018968 (accessed December 16, 2017).