Advertisers Enter the Conversation

In the 1920s, girls presented a fertile market for a new product: sanitary napkins.

Ads promised liberation from sitting at home making and cleaning cloth napkins, especially for girls who worked. New, disposable products could help girls avoid teasing and increase their sense of personal freedom.

If advertisers could make girls loyal to a brand, they had a customer for life.

Psychologist and efficiency expert Lillian M. Gilbreth studied the market for menstrual pads on behalf of Johnson & Johnson, manufacturers of Modess.

Lillian Moller Gilbreth, around 1920

Lillian Moller Gilbreth, around 1920

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image # SIA2008-1924

In the United States alone, there are approximately 30,000,000 women between the ages of thirteen and forty-five....Commercially, this would mean...a potential market of over 45,000,000,000.

—Lillian Gilbreth, 1927

Cotton Diaper, date unknown

Cotton Diaper, date unknown

Before disposable pads and tampons, girls used moss, folded linen, cotton rags, or diapers. Many girls without money used folded rags pinned to their underwear well into the 1900s.

Modess Vending Machine, around 1960

Ever been surprised by your period? Vending machines became a popular way to sell napkins when and where girls needed them—often unexpectedly, and in bathrooms.

View object record

Menstrual Products, 1900–2018

Why do we refer to menstrual products as sanitary?

The products we use today are the result of an abundance of cello cotton after World War I, marketing studies, and product decisions in the early 1900s. Health advisors wanted to sanitize menstruation to make it less messy and more healthy. And manufacturers wanted to find new markets for products.

Packaging reinforced the message that menstruation should be sanitary and convenient.


In recent years, some girls have embraced menstruation as a point of pride. They are changing the conversation about menarche to celebrate girls' bodies and turn body talk into something normal and fun.

Anything You Can Do Needlepoint, 2018

Anything You Can Do Needlepoint, 2018

Video Playlist

"Molly Grows Up," 1953
“It’s Wonderful Being a Girl,” 1968
"Naturally, A Girl," 1973
"Puberty in Girls," 2016
Tampon Run, 2014