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4 Mar 2022

‘Problems of intimate importance’

Written by Ana Sanchez-De la Vega, Visitor Services Manager for Tenement House, Holmwood and Weaver’s Cottage
A blue and white box of Southalls compressed sanitary towel with two safety pins. The strapline reads 'invaluable to ladies travelling'.
A box of sanitary towels from the Tenement House collection
What can an object tell us about the past? A box of Southalls sanitary towels from our collections has made us reflect on how women dealt with their periods throughout the 1900s.

We recognise that menstruation is an experience that can be highly variable, and can mean different things to different people. We acknowledge that not all people who menstruate are women and not all women menstruate. However, for the purpose of this story, the term ‘woman/women’ has been used.

At the beginning of the 1900s – when Agnes Toward lived in Glasgow, in what is now known as the Tenement House – menstruation hygiene products were considered taboo and menstruation itself was referred to in literature of the time as a problem.

The Scottish Field in December 1940 with an advert for Rendells products, for ‘problems of intimate importance’

During the Edwardian era, upper-class women would wear a protective sanitary rubber apron to prevent potential blood staining on their dresses. These were uncomfortable and very cumbersome, and gradually faded away as new technology developed.

Women like Miss Toward and her mother (who was a dressmaker) would have used reusable cloth pads crafted at home from a variety of absorbent fabrics. Many women would have created their own with the sewing machine, if they were lucky enough to have one, and then safely kept them in place with the help of pins and a belted girdle.

During World War One, clever field nurses found that the Cellucotton used in surgical dressing and bandage was particularly absorbent. They began to use them as disposable sanitary pads.

In the UK, the manufacturer Southalls (Southall Bros and Barclay) from Birmingham transformed the original wood pulp-based dressing into disposable sanitary towels. A box of these is part of our collection at Tenement House, a middle-class flat rented by the Toward ladies between 1911 and 1965, who were lucky to have a toilet and a bath in their home at a time when indoor toilets were quite a luxury!

These rectangular pads were made of fibrous wool covered with an absorbent gauze layer. Some were designed with loops to fit in the brand belt or were pinned in. They could be bought for two pence. Because of their relatively high cost, these were not popular and many women continued to use their own washable pads until well into the middle of the 20th century.

On one Southalls advert from an early-1900s women’s magazine kept in our archive, they are referred to as ‘The greatest invention of the century for Women’s Comfort’.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that the first tampons were patented and designed with the help of a sewing machine. The menstrual cup was invented a little bit later, in 1937, but both products would have to wait quite a few decades to become well known and widely accessible.

In a 1940s magazine kept in the Tenement House archive, we can see that these products could be ordered by mail with the promise of a discreet package.

Did Miss Toward buy this product for travel, as suggested on the box? Most probably, as we know that Agnes holidayed on the Scottish coast each year. It may also be likely that this box remained forgotten about amongst her many belongings. In the end, this little unopened box became something special – an item she kept all her life that has now found a place of significance in our collection.

Today, this humble object reminds us that many people are still fighting, for both affordable sanitary products and for the stigma over menstruation to end.

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