Menstrual cups were invented in 1867. What took them so long to gain popularity?

Period tech helped women "overcome prejudice leveled against a bleeding body." The technology's future could be even more freeing.

menstrual cup
Menstrual cups were one of the first technologies proposed as a solution to dealing with monthly periods. So why are they only catching on now? Wikimedia Commons

Are you a Dutchess, a Diva, or a Pixie? Do you Blossom like a flower, or are you more of a Saalt of the earth kind of gal? Perhaps ‘Lunette’ better captures your dreamy, moonlike bodily fluctuations.

Today, people with periods can choose between dozens of menstrual cups—bell-shaped silicon containers, meant to capture blood during menses, available for purchase online or in-stores.

The product has arguably never been more popular. The global market for menstrual cups has been estimated at between $46 million and at $1.4 billion by 2023. Scientists also recently tested the cup’s benefits: In a July review of 43 studies, researchers concluded the cups are safe, effective, and more environmentally-friendly than disposable menstrual products like tampons and pads. Online, customer reviews exalt, “FREE AT LAST!” and “Why is it a secret? Why aren’t we telling EVERYONE?”

Advocates for menstrual cups say the product is the future of period care—but few realize that the innovation is no secret at all. It’s actually as old as the notion of menstrual hygiene itself. The first cups were invented in 1867, predating the first pads by a decade and the first modern commercial tampons by more than a half century. Some 150 years later, cups may be more mainstream, but certainly not widespread (studies suggest only between 11 and 33 percent of women surveyed are aware of menstrual cups).

“Because menstruation is so shrouded in shame and secrecy, we don’t socialize people to be curious about it as a bodily process. It’s presented as a problem to solve,” says Chris Bobel, an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Menstrual cups were one of the first technologies proposed as a solution to dealing with monthly periods. So why are they only catching on now?

old image of a catamenial sack
“Oh this old thing? It’s just a catamenial sack, I got it back in 1868 off a sales rack.” U.S. Patent No. 75434A

The birth of menstrual technology

For most of human history, the period has been both ignored and maligned. Ancient medicine revered the proper ratio of blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile, and claimed it could be balanced through diet, medicine, laxatives, blistering skin with hot irons, or even bloodletting. For women as far back as 4 to 5 B.C., good health depended on a regular evacuation of blood through menstruation.

Still, ancient physicians held bizarre suspicions about periods. “When the menses are excessive, diseases take place, and when the menses are stopped, diseases from the uterus take place,” wrote Hippocrates in his Aphorisms, where he also suggested you could induce menstruation through aromatic fumigation or halt it by applying as large a cupping instrument as possible to the breasts. Hippocrates also believed that in all its “noisome smell” menstrual blood was fermented (because women, unlike men, couldn’t clear their bodies of impurities through sweat), writes journalist Natalie Angier in her 1999 book, Woman: An Intimate Geography. Aristotle thought menstrual blood was excess blood not incorporated into a fetus; others thought it contained undigested food.

Menstrual blood is a pollutant across historic texts, from the laws of Leviticus to Barnaby Barnes’s 1607 play The Devil, in which the devil says, “Thy soule foule beast is like a menstrous cloath, Polluted with unpardonable sinnes.”

“The notion that menstrual blood is toxic has pervaded human thinking, west to east, up to down,” Angier writes.

It makes sense that “given the implicit cultural link between menstrual blood and disease, the social taboos of decency and shame, and the biblical comparison of menstrual rags and spiritual corruption,” historical information about how women managed their periods across millennia is scarce, writes Sara Read, an historian and English lecturer at Loughborough University in England, in a 2008 paper on early modern menstrual practices. Conduct guides and housewifery manuals go so far as to instruct women on how to clean out their ears and noses but omit any guidance for menstrual sanitation, for example, and women’s diaries rarely mention periods.

Instead, knowledge about how to deal with menstruation spread from woman to woman by word of mouth, according to historian Laura Klosterman Kidd’s research on menstrual technology in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Still, historians generally agree that up until the turn of the century, most women used, washed, and re-used diaper-like fabrics or rags pinned onto their under-petticoats to absorb period blood. “If they were poorer, they might let it soak in their skirts and wash their skirts,” says Lara Freidenfelds, historian of health, reproduction, and parenting in the U.S. and author of The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America.

Then, around the second half of the 19th century, menstrual technology appears.

In her research, Kidd found 185 patents issued for menstrual technology from 1854 (when the first such product was invented) to 1921. This collected assortment of intimate inventions includes belts and suspenders from which to hang sacks, shields, and napkins; absorbents made of sponges, wool or raw waste fibers; and rubber underwear to protect skirts from stains. (A personal favorite found from 1887: “The Ladies’ Elastic Doily Belt” manufactured in both silk and thread elastic with silk trimming. Ooh la la.)

Among the items, Kidd notes a number of “vaginally inserted menstrual retentive cups” for which the first patent was granted to a S. L. Hockert in 1867. U.S.P. No. 70,843 describes a rubber sack attached to a ring to be inserted into the vagina and removed with a cord. Most of the vaginal insert patents from this era, according to Kidd, were made of soft or hard rubber or non-corrosive metals, and often featured a small sponge for extra absorbency.

By the 1890s, brochure and magazines advertised everything from period belts to aprons, catamenial sacks, and even Johnson and Johnson’s “Lister’s Towels,” disposable, gauze-covered cotton pads. “Lady agents” peddled products door-to-door, or women could purchase them via direct mail order from companies such as Sears, Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward or buy them in department, drug, and dry goods stores.

Across the pond, European inventors in Britain, France, and Germany were also proposing similar menstruation paraphernalia, writes design historian Alia Al-Khalidi in the Journal of Design History—marking the discovery that this physiological event might be mined for profit. Around this time, social, economic, and ideological changes were completely reshaping what doctors, women, and others thought about periods.

Declines in birthrates (thanks to an emphasis on child rearing over childbearing as well as proactive measures to control fertility) meant women were spending less time pregnant and breastfeeding—and more time menstruating.

“Pregnancy shifted from a natural and constant state of being to an exception,” writes historian Sharra Vostral in her book, Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene. “Once understood as a sporadic event—happening upwards of one hundred times per lifetime—(periods) now became an incessant reoccurrence.”

Doctors didn’t think this change from consistent pregnancy to monthly bleeding was particularly healthy, either, Vostral writes. In the mid-19th century, doctors like A.F.A. King, a professor of obstetrics at the National Medical College of Columbian University (now George Washington Medical School) in D.C. declared “menstruation is a disease” and a “hemorrhage” resulting from women violating the laws of nature that commanded gestation as the normal state of their bodies. Another, Edward Clark, argued in the 1870s that three competing vital forces rule biological process: nutritive, nervous, and reproductive. Because muscle and brain cannot fully function at the same time, he argued, a woman menstruating while in school threatened her own physiological development.

Fortunately, others resisted this notion. In 1874, the Harvard Medical Schools’ annual Boylston Medical Prize essay competition prompted doctors to wrestle the question: “Do women require mental rest and bodily rest during menstruation and to what extent?” Mary C. Putnam Jacobi, a physician, teacher, and suffragist, thoroughly researched the question and concluded an unwavering no. Her essay, submitted under her backwards initials, PCM, won her the competition. “To the disgust of the Harvard selection committee, they grudgingly awarded a woman the two hundred dollar premium. That they unknowingly selected the essay of a female physician proved the committee’s worst fears,” Vostral writes, adding that Harvard refused to publish the essay.

By the turn of the century, the shift from old-fashioned homemade belts to mass-manufactured disposable menstrual products was slowly underway—as were conversations about how to deal with the “incapacities” caused by periods.

The modern woman’s quest for menstrual emancipation

In the early twentieth century, industrialization demanded efficiency from its workers and factories, and mass-production and consumerism welcomed disposable, readymade products into American culture. These two ideals spilled over to menstruation: a fine-tuned female body should not stink, leak, embarrass or fall into dysfunction every three weeks. So women sought products that helped hide a period from peers, and forget about it themselves.

“Menstrual hygiene technologies are hidden artifacts that have enabled women to pass, to overcome prejudice leveled against a bleeding body,” Vostral writes.

Sanitary napkins and tampons emerged around this time to help emancipate modern women from their periods. Female pilots, for example, who could be grounded during their periods instead ignored direct orders and hid their periods with tampons. In her book, Vostral retells the story of one informant remembering a “doctor conclud[ing] jokingly that we were a very unusual group of women because we did not menstruate.”

By 1920, Kimberly Clarke Corporation released the first, brick-like Kotex (short for Cotton-like Texture) pad after battlefield nurses used the cellulose wood pulp wound dressing during their periods. In 1931, the inventor of Tampax filed a patent for the tampon, later telling a company historian “he just got tired of women wearing those damned old rags.”

Just a few years later, in 1937, American actress Leona Chalmers invented what is possibly the first commercial menstrual cup: “Tass-ette” (two other products, “Daintette” and “Foldene” are other contenders for the title of the original cup). Chalmers’ patent states that the rubber-made design won’t cause “uncomfortableness or consciousness of its presence” and would allow women to wear “thin, light, close fitting clothing” without belts, pins or buckles, according to the Museum of Menstrual History.

All three products jostled to be the solution for a “modern body” that did not visibly bleed, smell, disturb, or offend. Tampax ads from the 30s promise freedom, comfort, and poise. In her own ad testimonial, Chalmers describes how her invention solved a monthly “nightmare,” saying “The Tass-ette, a pliant, little, rubber cup…means, at last, peace of mind, carefree daintiness…wherever you go, whatever you do.”

Still, in the first half of the century, women eagerly adopted pads but hesitated to try out tampons. This is at least partly because top physicians debated their safety in major medical journals, and even more doctors worried that tampons would break a young woman’s hymen, sexually stimulate her, or encourage promiscuity. Menstrual cups faced similar obstacles.

“There was longstanding idea is that anything being inserted means you lose your virginity. A lot people found them a little too daring,” Freidenfelds says.

old tampon ad
“A list of wardrobe essentials of Her Royal Daintiness, the modern woman, would be incomplete without at least one package of Kotex.” Wikimedia Commons

During World War II, a shortage of latex rubber further stalled the company’s popularity by slowing down Tass-ette’s production. But in the early 1950s, the brand relaunched as “Tassette”—this time with a big advertising budget, according to the MuM.

Ads for menstrual cups in the early sixties often depicted them as tulips and emphasized the product’s freshness and cuteness (Tassette, in French, means “little cup”). One ad described it as “Monthly Protection as Dainty as a Dew-Kissed Flower.” A radio spot featured a female physician explaining, “As a doctor, I recommend Tassette. As a woman, I rave about it. To me personally, Tassette is more than monthly protection. It’s a blessing.” According to a 1961 account in Drug Trade News, a 30-by-40-foot sign for Tassette (“Not a tampon, not a napkin!”) became the first Times Square billboard devoted to feminine personal hygiene.

But despite the quality ads and woman physician-backed product, the company never made a profit. According to Robert P. Oreck, who ran Tassette, it disappeared in 1963 because of both reluctant potential customers and already satisfied ones who only made a one-time purchase.

Around the same time, tampons and Kotex started an ad campaign aimed at overcoming the stigma around their products which turned out to be a great success.

In trade press, Kimberly Clark ran ads proclaiming “Kotex, Don’t Hide It!” and by 1952 package inserts for tampons included statements that “fully mature young women can use Tampax without impairing their virginity.” The advent of a compressed tampon and disposable cardboard applicator also helped convince women to adopt tampons, Vostral says. “Then women didn’t have to touch themselves, they didn’t have to touch the mess,” Vostral says. “It was a mediator between the menstrual period and their hands, in a way.”

By the sexual revolution of the late 60s and 70s, tampons became much more accepted among teenagers and young women (who preferred the applicators to napkins that, for the most part, still had to be safety pinned to underwear).

Just before its demise, the Tassette company launched a new plastic disposable cup, the Tassaway, just as applicator tampons were taking off, to compete with these newly popular disposable menstrual products.

However, despite spending more than $1 million on advertising, profit was low and the company’s assets were worth a mere $229,000 in its final stretch. And in 1972, a federal judge in Los Angeles determined Oreck had violated the fraud and securities laws, effectively shuttering the business, according to the Museum of Menstruation.

the first Times Square billboard devoted to a feminine hygiene product.
Supposedly, the first Times Square billboard devoted to a feminine hygiene product. Museum of Menstruation

Meanwhile, technological innovations continued to improve the experience of periods.

Stick-on pads introduced in 1970, allowed women to fasten their pads with adhesives instead of pins and belts. Ibuprofen—first as a prescription drug and later, in 1894, as an over-the-counter—helped ease menstrual cramps. And for women born after 1960 who began taking the Pill found hormonal contraceptives helped regulate their periods. As one woman told Freidenfelds during her book research: “And it just felt like, ‘Aha! Now I have the upper hand!’ over my own body.”

In 1987, menstrual cups re-emerged with the latex rubber “Keeper” (which still exists today) made by Lou Crawford in Cincinnati, Ohio (an early suggested name for this product was “Liberty Bell,” for its shape and its “liberating” effects). In the following decades, small technological improvements enhanced menstrual cups, too, like the development of medical-grade silicone for women with latex allergies.

And yet, a century after its invention, the menstrual cup had yet to take hold.

“There have been brands on and off on the market throughout,” Freidenfelds says. “They just hadn’t taken off.”

The future of period care

The great irony of modern hype around cups and reusable cloth pads is that those are some of the oldest proposed solutions for managing periods, says Chris Bobel, of the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“‘Alternative’ as we understand it today really means what was once traditional,” Bobel says. Once mass-produced tampons and pads took hold, “You had to be kind of crunchy, kind of lefty, kind of freaky to take the risk to try something that wasn’t available at your druggist. Now you can try a cup and tweet about it or post to your Instagram.”

So why the resurgence? Today, women who use menstrual cups do so for a number of reasons: to reduce landfill waste or to spend less money on disposable period care (about $3,360 total over a person’s lifetime by one estimate).

Just as the early labor movement, suffrage, industrialization, and consumerism, and women’s liberation all propelled various menstrual technologies into popularity, there are social changes that have popularized menstrual cups.

“It’s signaling something,” Vostral says. “The patents were there, but the uptick doesn’t happen until the social change occurs. Now, it seems like there’s a rise.”

That rise could be attributed to a number of movements: calls for environmental justice, the use of social media to discuss once-taboo subjects, the rise of body positivity, and a consumer demand for ‘natural’ ingredients and products.

Menstrual cups may be trendy, but they are far from being as popular as pads or tampons.

For a 2014 study, psychologists at the University of California, Santa Cruz surveyed about 150 ethnically diverse female students and found only about a third of whom had heard of the menstrual cup before. “Reactions to an alternative menstrual product were predominantly negative,” the researchers concluded, “supporting prior research on stigma and shame surrounding menstruation.” They did, however, find a relationship between age and positivity toward the menstrual cup, suggesting as women get older, they become more open to alternatives.

In 2018, psychologists at Kentucky’s Bellarmine University examined students’ attitudes toward their bodies and reusable menstrual products that require close contact with bodily fluids. They surveyed 62 undergrads with periods about things like appearance, body issues, beliefs about ecology and nature, and feelings about different menstrual products. They found people who conveyed higher shame about their bodies were more reluctant to use reusable menstrual products— even if they expressed pro-environmental values.

To Lara Freidenfelds, some things haven’t changed: Women have always gravitated toward products that promised emancipation—whether from giant hoop skirts or from the modern notion of a “pink tax.”

“It shifts forms along the way and the technologies improve, but the success of these products is always measured against that: Can I live my life the way I want to do it and not take my period into account?” Freidenfelds says. “That’s been the intent since the early 19th century.”

Bobel says she hopes the growing public interest in periods leads to more investment in evidence-based, non-judgmental menstrual health education for everybody.

“Not only in fifth grade, in gym class, by an uncomfortable teacher,” Bobel says.

For her, expanded access to options for period management does not mean reducing menstrual stigma.

“In a way, they’re contradictory: If you’re succeeding at hiding your period, you’re not fighting stigma, you’re accommodating it,” she says.

If anything, Freidenfelds argues, hormonal birth control—not pads, cups, or tampons—is the future of period care.

A majority of U.S. women who use some kind of contraception to avoid unplanned pregnancies turn to hormonal methods (the pill, vaginal ring, patch, implant or IUD) that can render the user’s period lighter, shorter, irregular, or even entirely absent.

In clinical trials for the IUD brand Liletta, one in five women stopped having a period after a year of use and by the end of its five-year life, when Liletta should be removed, more than 40 percent of the trial subjects no longer menstruated. For users of Mirena, which generated $746 million in revenue for Bayer in 2017, one in five users will also stop having their periods. Women taking oral birth control pills can safely eliminate their periods by skipping the placebo pills (which the Pill’s Catholic inventor only designed in the first place to please the Pope and persuade the Catholic church to formally accept birth control).

“To me, that’s what’s on the horizon,” Fredenfields says. “If we’ll even be talking about periods in the future.”