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How the Women in Your Life Learned About Aunt Flo

Mary had her first period in 1966, and she had no idea what was going on. Her mom had always been “too busy” and “embarrassed” to talk to her about it, and her classmates would only say vague things about “the curse” and the need for “sanitary protection,” whatever the hell that meant. So when the blood first came, she was unprepared and mortified.

Her friend Doris, however, had a different experience. Rather than listen to her classmates or expect to learn anything from her mom, Doris went to the school nurse, who gave her an educational booklet entitled It’s Time You Knew….

All booklet images reprinted with permission from the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health

The booklet assured her menstruation was “a normal, natural function.” It wasn’t an illness. And there were pictures of (rich white skinny) girls doing all sorts of fun normal things while discharging blood from their uterine linings.

And there were exercises, reportedly “devised by a doctor,” which you could do to “chase away your cramps for good.”

Mary and Doris were, by the way, fictional characters in It’s Time You Knew…. Mary represented a relic of a backward age when menstruation was shrouded in secrecy and superstition. But Doris was the Modern Girl, someone who wouldn’t let a little inconvenience like a period get her down. She could smile, “stay fresh” and keep a tampon in her purse — preferably Tampax, the publisher of the pamphlet.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, hundreds of millions of American girls were given booklets like It’s Time You Knew… by their mothers, aunts, teachers, nurses and camp counselors. For much of the 20th century, this was how most American girls learned about their periods. And the booklets were almost all published by the manufacturers of pads and tampons. Brands like Tampax and Kotex realized that industrialization had left an informational vacuum that they could fill; they could become the primary teachers to young girls about menstruation and puberty — and encourage those girls to buy their products every month.

These booklets transformed how girls experienced their first period, also known as menarche (which rhymes with “malarkey”). For most of human history, a girl’s first period was the beginning of her life as a sexual being and a child-bearer. In the modern developed world, thanks to the educational campaign by Kotex and its rivals, a girl’s first period is the beginning of her life as a consumer.

Now let’s back up and unpack some assumptions about what periods are. Whatever your gender, this is probably how you think about menstruation: When girls hit puberty, they begin to have their periods, and they have a period once a month(ish) until they reach menopause — the main exception being when they’re pregnant or nursing an infant. In other words, monthly bleeding is the default.

But this wasn’t the typical woman’s experience until, like, the 19th century. Drawing from an influential paper by the reproductive anthropologist Barbara Harrell, it was more like this: When a pubescent girl had her first period, she pretty quickly started having sex and babies — and she kept having babies until she reached menopause. She usually became pregnant again less than a year after giving birth to the previous baby, and in the meantime, she was breastfeeding and didn’t menstruate much. In fact, it wouldn’t have been unusual for her to get pregnant again without having had a period at all. The sum of all this was that, from puberty to menopause, a woman had relatively few periods — so few she might’ve been able to count them on her fingers. Menstruation wasn’t the default for her; pregnancy and breastfeeding was.

This helps make sense out of the various taboos associated with menstruation in non-modern societies — the Levitical prohibition of menstruating women from the temple, the sequestration of Yurok woman to menstrual huts. We might think to ourselves, why would they make women do this every month? But it wasn’t every month. When a woman bled, it either meant that she was making her debut as a sexual, reproductive being, or that she wasn’t getting pregnant for some reason. Menstruation was either the sign of ensuing fertility, or later in a woman’s life, possible infertility; in either case, it wasn’t a regular occurrence.

Then came the industrial revolution. It didn’t necessarily make economic sense anymore for a family to have as many babies as they could. Plus fattier, more nutrient-rich diets meant that girls started having their periods younger and younger, from around 15 years old in the mid-19th century to around 12 years old today. It became increasingly uncomfortable to associate a girl’s first period with sexual and reproductive maturity.

Average age of menarche in Oslo, 1860–1978

The industrial revolution brought about another change that impacted girls’ menstrual experiences, too. Beforehand, they grew up working alongside an intergenerational community of girls and women — aunts, cousins, neighbors — and they just kinda learned about menstruation, puberty and sex through osmosis. But that broke down with industrialization and urbanization. Menstruation was now something she had to be purposely taught about, and there weren’t many people in her life to do the teaching.

Indeed, as the historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg documents, many girls in the early 20th century knew absolutely nothing about menstruation when they had their first period. When a Yugoslavian-American girl in the 1910s asked her mother why she was bleeding, her mom just gave her a big rag and told her put it “in the bottom.” A Finnish immigrant around the same time had a similar experience, her mom telling her she “thought the girls at school would tell you” and she “didn’t think it would happen so long.”

All of this changed, however, when Europe and eventually the U.S. were plunged into war.

During World War I, the paper-mill company Kimberly-Clark began manufacturing Cellucotton, a cotton substitute for bandaging wounded soldiers. U.S. Army nurses, however, quickly found a way to repurpose the highly absorbent material. Kimberly-Clark caught wind of this, and after the war, rebranded Cellucotton as Kotex (because of its COtton-like TEXture), the first-ever mass-produced menstrual aid. They launched a huge advertising campaign, placing ads like this in Cosmopolitan and Woman’s Home Companion.

The message of these ads was that, by using Kotex, menstruating women could pass as non-menstruating. They could carry on their day-to-day lives (which apparently included a lot of dinner parties, horseback riding, and beach holidays) with no one being the wiser. Having your period had little do with impolite topics like sex or pregnancy; it was a matter of personal hygiene, like bad breath or smelly armpits. (Lara Freidenfelds writes about this at greater length in The Modern Period.) Menstruation was a bodily inconvenience that modern products could remedy.

It wasn’t long before Kotex and its rivals expanded their ad campaign to target their youngest customers. The companies created whole educational divisions and designed curricula they gave away free to parents, doctors, nurses, schools, YWCAs and Girl Scout troop leaders.

These booklets tapped into people’s anxiety about the meaning of menstruation. The old story about sexual and reproductive maturity didn’t work anymore. What did a girl’s first period mean, and what sort of ritual should accompany it?

Apparently the new ritual would be centered around mass-produced menstrual aids. A mother, nurse or teacher gave the menstruating girl a ready-made box with some pads or tampons, a booklet and maybe a piece of chocolate. In the wonderfully titled Nancy’s Biggest Day at Camp, the titular camper received a sort of infomercial from her counselor Nancy.

Nancy even broke open the pad and poured droplets of water on it to show off its absorbency.

This was, of course, the harbinger of the ubiquitous blue liquid in modern pad commercials.

From what we can tell, though, the grownup often just let the girl read the booklet by herself and didn’t talk it over with them. Conveniently, this was what Kotex’s first booklet explicitly told mothers to do, saying they probably didn’t have the “gift of eloquence” required to explain menstruation as well as Kotex could.

What did girls actually learn from these booklets? Sometimes they got mixed messages: Don’t worry, your periods may not go like clockwork — but be sure to keep track of your monthly cycle using the calendar printed in the back! And “if you notice a minor irregularity,” it’s best to “talk it over with your mother or school nurse.”

Also, just because you’re on your period doesn’t mean you can’t do what everyone else is doing — though you might wanna think twice about tennis, basketball, skiing, diving, hiking, jumping rope, jitterbugging, ice skating, hot showers or getting your feet wet. But don’t just “sit at home and mope,” either!

In general, the booklets emphasized that menstruation was little more than a minor inconvenience. Most of the “discomfort” girls experienced was “made in the mind,” the result of “thinking too much about themselves.” You didn’t want to be one of those girls who “cry easily, lose their tempers over nothing and use menstruation as an excuse for being rude and mean.” Instead be like the girls in the booklets, who looked like they were just having a ball.

Maybe not this girl, though:

Above all, menstruation shouldn’t get in the way of buying things. You could “go anywhere” without your pad showing — to your local soda fountain, to the movies with a date or on a country jaunt for a picnic.

These images reinforced the idea that menarche was a girl’s induction into her new life as a consumer. She would now buy pads or tampons every month, and soon, she’d be buying makeup, deodorant, razors, shampoo and dresses too. “Now your tastes are developing,” declared the first page of a 1964 booklet. “You discover that certain clothes are right for you, others completely wrong. You start to find your own fashion personality.” Menstruation was, another booklet said, a key part of a girl’s transition “from lollipops to lipsticks.”

Indeed, getting your period apparently had way more to do with lipstick than it did with sex, which the booklets rarely if ever discussed. The anatomical sketches of the female reproductive system might include the hymen, the rectum or even the pituitary gland, but never the vulva or clitoris. One girl, mystified by the cutaway diagram in the booklet her mom gave her, thought “getting your period meant having to cut off one leg.

And though the booklets tried to downplay female pain, they certainly weren’t interested in female pleasure. True, that was arguably beyond their purview; they weren’t supposed to be comprehensive sex ed — but they often were what passed for sex ed.

I mean, look at how uneasy these booklets were with tampons. The 1940s Kotex pamphlet As One Girl to Another cautioned girls not to “use tampons without first consulting their doctors.” Why? Because they were afraid a tampon might tear the girl’s hymen. So, you know, she wouldn’t be a virgin anymore? (In case you’re wondering, Kotex did make tampons, so this wasn’t about competing with Tampax.) By the 1960s, menstrual aid manufacturers were less skittish about girls using tampons, but the booklets still had to do a lot of work convincing girls their hymens would stay intact.

Sex education began to improve in the 1970s, and the menstrual aid manufacturers began to have less influence over curricula. But we’re still very much living in the paradigm created by Kotex, Modess, and Tampax. Remember this viral ad from 2014?

In the ad, an impatient pre-teen girl fakes her first period, and her utterly unfooled mom decides to play along and throw her a massive “first moon” party, complete with a blood-red fondue fountain and a uterus piñata. Some commentators praised the ad for reclaiming menarche as an empowering rite of passage; indeed, the moon party isn’t too different from how many traditional societies have given meaning and importance to a girl’s first period.

But this was all a ruse. At the end of the commercial, the girl’s mom reveals the moon party wasn’t a family tradition but instead an elaborate prank. More to the point, she gives her daughter a HelloFlo package of pads, tampons, panty liners and candy, and tells her once she does start getting her period, she’ll have a package delivered to her for every menstrual cycle. So what the commercial is really saying is: Moon parties are gross and silly, and the true meaning of menarche is joining the world of faux-feminist branding and online subscription services.

In that way at least, things aren’t much different today than they were during the It’s Time You Knew… days. Maybe the best example: A woman who grew up in 1940s Pittsburgh remembered that one time when she was in the fifth grade, she and her friends were sliding down a snow-covered hill, except for one girl who refused to slide. The girl, who hadn’t started getting her period yet, said she was “practicing Kotex.” You see, for her and many others who followed her, Kotex was synonymous with menstruation. The monthly bleeding had no meaning outside of the product that made it invisible. And that’s pretty much how it still is today.