Introducing the MUM Menstrual History Collection

By , Diane Wendt
A group of menstrual products in their original packaging, including tampons, sanitary napkins, a menstrual cup, and a sanitary belt.

Tampons. Sanitary napkins and belts. Menstrual cups, sponges, and other period products. Women and girls around the world depend on these items in order to fully participate in school, work, and play. Yet 100 years ago—when the crude phrase “on the rag” meant, well, on the rag—few options were available. Though they are rarely preserved in museum collections, period products changed history. The museum is excited to announce the acquisition of an extraordinary collection—475 artifacts and 7.5 cubic feet of archival materials—that documents the history of menstrual products and their impact on our lives.

A group of menstrual products in their original packaging, including tampons, sanitary napkins, a menstrual cup, and a sanitary belt.
The new collection contains a wide array of menstrual products from the early 1900s to the early 2010s.

Though menstruation is a physical and cultural experience for half of the world’s population, it has historically been kept quiet and mostly out of sight. The dominant American culture surrounding menstruation has long been dedicated to making it invisible; evidence of menstruation has been considered taboo and embarrassing. In the 1930s and 1940s, the introduction of an array of manufactured disposable period products resulted in a massive business with a surge of advertising. Though the products were increasingly visible, their messaging continued to stress secrecy—the necessity and benefits of keeping both menstruation and period products hidden.  

In the past 30 years, some scholars have argued that the history of menstrual culture is a crucial and neglected area of study but that notion has been slow to seep into popular history and culture. Until recently, relatively few museums were interested in collecting and exhibiting these kinds of materials. While our own museum amassed extensive collections of lightbulbs and lace, surgical instruments and silverware, furniture and firearms, we did not focus on collecting menstrual material culture. A compounding factor is that most menstrual products were designed to be used and then thrown away. Because they weren’t tucked away for posterity by either consumers or curators, finding specimens of historical products is very difficult.

Collage of menstrual products. On the left, a box, booklet, and package of Secret brand tampons featuring an illustrated woman in a shooshing pose. On the right, a display for Fibs brand tampons with message: “Invisible Modern Sanitary Protection.”
The messaging from products made clear that keeping menstruation a secret is paramount. Left: Secret brand tampons, around 1937. Right: a dealer display of Fibs tampons, around 1936. (2022.0221.208 and 2022.0221.216)

Fortunately, a small but dedicated group of people had the foresight to recognize the importance of documenting menstrual history and its artifacts. One of those people is Harry Finley, who collected thousands of menstrual products and advertisements, helped by donors and companies that contributed period paraphernalia that they thought should be preserved.  

When Finley worked as a graphic designer in Germany in the 1970s, he was struck by how candidly German magazines and advertisements addressed menstrual products, compared to the euphemisms used in United States. He began collecting menstrual materials from all over the world, including products, advertising, and educational materials spanning the 1800s and 1900s. During the 1990s, Finley displayed these collections at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health (MUM), the museum he built in his home in New Carrollton, Maryland.  

Finley has now donated the core of his collection to the Smithsonian to ensure it will be preserved, accessible—and visible.

Sign and sketches showing the Museum of Menstruation (MUM)'s stylized logo. The sign has textured font reminiscent of ruby sequins.
The sign from the former Museum of Menstruation (MUM), next to Finley’s original sketches for the museum’s logo. The “MUM” logo is a play on words—as in “mum’s the word” when it comes to menstruation! (2022.0221.474)

The powerful thing about material culture is that, even when people feel that they can’t or shouldn’t talk about something, we can often discover evidence of their thoughts, cultural ideals, taboos, hopes, and fears in the materials they created, used, and sold. Examining menstrual artifacts can be a way to get beyond silence and invisibility.

Thus, this artifact and archival collection will allow audiences and researchers to examine how important these products were (and are)—how they helped to create space for women within all aspects of society and how they affected health standards and quality of life.     

These materials will also allow us to contrast those benefits with some real problems, such as ecological and health concerns associated with period products, and the ways those products and their advertising reinforced misogynistic notions and unrealistic expectations about women’s bodies.

Packaging for sanitary napkins from the company Moderne Women, featuring messages like: "Deodorizes. (No possibility of giving offense)"; "Modern woman's best friend"; and "The internal sanitary napkin."
Moderne Women, around 1939—“No possibility of giving offense.” Period products commonly used advertising tactics that reveal pressures to conceal signs or odors associated with menstruation. (2022.0221.202)

To get a sense of how rich and relevant the history of period products really is, here is a sneak peek at these new objects and the strands of history they illuminate.

Freedom and Opportunity. New Freedom sanitary napkins and Wix tampons both literally offered freedom from belts and pins and promised to open up a world of new opportunities, unhindered by periods or by old-fashioned and cumbersome period products.

Collage of ads. On the left, an ad for New Freedom sanitary napkins. On the right, an advertising display for Wix Sanitary Protection products, showing a woman preparing to play tennis, with the tagline "Use internally — Utterly invisible."
Left: New Freedom sanitary napkins, 1970. Right: Wix dealer advertising display, around 1939. (2022.0221.063 and AC1586-0000005)

Social Shame. Ah, the shame and stigma of being a high school girl who carries . . . period products. Product advertisements increasingly made the fact of menstruation more visible within mainstream American culture. Yet, they also reiterated the need for women to hide menstruation in all social environments.

An full-page ad for Pursettes Tampons that includes a full cartoon strip, with two high school-age girls talking about menstruation. An oversize speech bubble reads "I spilled my secret and he almost picked it up!"
Ad from Seventeen magazine, 1974. (AC1586-0000014)

Defining Femininity. Period product advertising also helped define ideals of femininity and beauty. Many of the materials in the MUM collection use the term “daintiness” as a euphemism for successfully masking any evidence of menstruation, perspiration, or other bodily functions considered socially unacceptable for women.

Collage. A pink package, paper insert, and two tampons made by Daints tampons. The packaging has the taglines "For the Women of Charm" and "Proven Best By Actual Test."
Daints Tampons, around 1938. (2022.0221.199)
An excerpt from a booklet showing an illustrated woman in a shooshing pose.
As One Girl to Another, International Cellucotton Products Company, 1943. (AC1586-0000001-08)

Sexual Purity. When menstrual tampons came on the market, companies faced resistance from religious and medical authorities that were invested in maintaining young women’s sexual “purity” before marriage. Advertising assured worried young women and their parents that they would still be virgins after using tampons.

Collage. On the left, an excerpt from a menstrual health teaching guide addressing “Tampons and virginity." On the right, a Tampax ad showing a woman on the phone paired with the text, "Yes you'll still be a virgin. No won't laugh at questions like that."
Left: From Fiction to Fact: A Teaching Guide on Menstruation and Menstrual Health, Tampax, 1965. Right: Tampax ad, Seventeen magazine, 1991. (AC1586-0000012)

Race. Despite being purchased and used by almost all women nationwide, packages and advertising for menstrual products typically depicted white women. This 1969 Tampax advertising campaign packet features only white women. It stands in contrast to parts of a company-produced booklet for parents, which featured an array of girls representing diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Collage of ads. On the left, a Tampax ad showing a collage of faux-newspaper articles with photos of women, described as "lovely young ladies." On the right, a booklet with girls posing for a photo adjacent to the text, "How shall I tell my Daughter?"
Left: Tampax advertising campaign that reads “These lovely young ladies are just a few of the well-known models who will continue to make Tampax the most popular, the most profitable tampons in the world,” 1969. Right: How Shall I Tell My Daughter, Personal Products Co., 1969. (AC1586-0000016-04 and AC1586-0000002-01)

Greener Products. Non-disposable menstrual products like reusable pads and cups have been promoted as a way to avoid landfill waste, expense, and potentially harmful chemicals in disposables. 

A group of reusable menstrual products.
Reusable cloth sanitary napkins from Glad Rags and Lotus Pads, around 1990s–2000s, and three menstrual cups: brown: Foldene, around 1934, green: Daintette, around 1940s–1960s; and white: Mooncup, around 2005. (2022.0221.436, 2022.0221.440, 2022.0221.446, 2022.0221.450 and 2022.0221.451)

Profits and Health. Large manufacturers assured retailers that huge profits were to be made by selling period products. The MUM collections show how conflicts between profits and women’s health arose and led to changes in government regulation and corporate responsibility.

Collage of ads for retailers. On the left, an ad for Modess tampons, calling them the “smash hit” of 1957. On the right, an ad for Tampax, showing a woman pulling back the curtain, posed next to a sign promising more sales and more profits.
Company sales campaigns aimed at dealers. Left: Modess 4-Star Spectacular campaign (Personal Products Company), 1957: Right: Tampax More Sales More Profits, 1968. (AC1586-0000004-05)

Over the next year the museum will be working to get this entire artifact collection cataloged, photographed, and made accessible online. The archival collection is already available for study.  

Help us spread the word about this new collection!

Rachel Anderson is a research and project assistant and Diane Wendt is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science.