Historically significant tampons

The Museum of Menstruation sustains the flow of knowledge in a little-known field.

Published September 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I don't know what you have in your basement, but I'm willing to bet everything in my basement that your basement isn't nearly as interesting as Harry Finley's basement. Harry Finley's basement in suburban Washington houses the Museum of Menstruation. This means that in his basement Harry Finley has the following: operating instructions for the Syngyna tampon absorption testing machine; an exhibit made of "tinted sculptor's material" in a beaker, showing how much blood is lost in a typical period ("Less than most people think"); photographs of hand-knit wool sanitary pads from Norway; and a dress fashioned from Instead Menstrual Cups by the device's inventor.

Even more interesting than Finley's basement is the Web site he's created. Sometime last year, Finley stopped taking in visitors and installed the museum on the Internet. Finley is an illustrator and designer, and is very good at making Web sites. So good, in fact, that the Department of Defense recently hired him to design some. Do the generals know about Finley's hobby? They do know, and they're OK with it. "They just don't want any implications that there's some kind of connection." So I agreed not to imply that any high-ranking generals at the Pentagon have Pursettes fetishes or like to wear Maxi Thins under their uniforms.

A prurient interest in things menstrual is not, Finley said, unheard of among males. He's received letters from six or seven such men, including an officer in the French Coast Guard. The men apparently mistook Finley for one of their own, and just wanted to talk. "It's like puncturing a boil for these men," recalls Finley, adding that he is not, in fact, one of them. "I would see menstruation as an impediment to sex." Would see?

"I don't have a girlfriend," confessed Finley. "My significant other right now is seven cats."

I wasn't sure where to take things from here. I said, "Do cats menstruate?" This probably wasn't the place to take it, and I apologize. Finley, of course, had an answer, an answer that, I am sure, does not apply to any other question in the universe: "No, but there are apes that do, and a shrew." Many of Finley's answers were like that. My other favorite was: "It stands for Ohne Binde, which is German for 'without pads.'"

Much of Finley's material is historical -- boxes of "historically significant tampons," sanitary pads dating back to the 1920s and hundreds of old magazine ads. The earliest reference to menstruation and what to do about it comes from the Old Testament: "The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: 'When a woman has a discharge of blood which is her regular discharge, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening, and everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water and ...'" Whereupon Aaron made the blah-blah-blah hand sign to Moses, saying unto him, "Can you say 'obsessive-compulsive disorder'"?

Growing sick of this seven-day impurity business, women picked up on a trick the ancient Egyptians came up with. According to Finley, Egyptian hieroglyphics tell of women inserting wads of lint for contraception. The O.B. tampon company has conjectured that the lint probably served double-duty as a tampon, and has printed this as fact in its promotional materials.

I asked Finley what kind of lint is available to a culture without dryers. For once he had no answer, and so we moved on. It took the rest of the world a while to catch up with the Egyptian gals, and for the next few centuries, pads ruled. (Some societies never made it that far: Finley says he's heard about tribes in East Africa and the Amazon where women "just let it run down their legs.")

One thing has remained constant through the ages, and that is the exorbitant prices charged by makers of pads and tampons. When Kotex pads were introduced in 1921, they sold for 5 cents each, which would be equivalent to about $2 each today, the sort of pricing you rarely see outside the Department of Defense, not that there's any connection. Not content to fleece women on their monthly requisite purchases, the hygiene industry proceeded, via nefarious ads in women's magazines, to foster nationwide paranoia over "menstrual odor," remediable, of course, by their products. A woman could buy deodorant powder to sprinkle on her pads to ensure "personal daintiness" and keep people from "talking behind her back." For the heavy-duty paranoid, there was the douching-with-Lysol option. "Wives often lose the precious air of romance for lack of the intimate daintiness dependent on effective douching," said a 1948 ad. "For this, look to reliable Lysol brand disinfectant."

Is there any scientific evidence that things smell worse at certain times of the month? Funny I should ask. In 1976, one Richard Doty and colleagues from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia published a paper in Science titled "Changes in the Intensity and Pleasantness of Human Vaginal Odors During the Menstrual Cycle." The researchers found that "secretions" gathered during the menstrual phase smelled "slightly" stronger than at other times.

You may well be wondering how the gathering portion of the experiment proceeded. (Then again, you may not, in which case you may wish to skip this paragraph and proceed to the exciting passage on bear attacks.) It proceeded thusly: "Secretions were collected on weighed sterile tampons ... that were sealed in glass jars and frozen until psychophysical testing," aka sniffing, performed by a let-us-hope-well-compensated 41 women and 37 men, who may or may not have belonged to the French Coast Guard or the U.S. armed forces, not that there's any connection.

So it smells a little stronger. Enough to attract bears? On this too there is scientific data. In 1991, the U.S. Forest Service, concerned over the mauling deaths of two menstruating hikers, launched a series of memorable experiments, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management and described on the Museum of Menstruation Web site. In three of these studies, as in the Monell study, tampons served in place of actual women. In the first study, park rangers attached used tampons to fly-fishing rods and spin-cast them toward a group of black bears foraging at a garbage dump. It is hard to imagine ignoring the sudden arrival of a used tampon at the end of a fishing line, but that is what the bears did 20 out of 22 times. They also ignored used tampons left on a bear trail, except for those that had been, for reasons unclear, soaked in rendered beef fat. Those they ate (personal daintiness apparently being of little concern to black bears). In the fourth study, bears accustomed to human interaction were approached by actual menstruating women. In 11 of 11 encounters, the bears paid no attention to the women's "lower torsos." Rogers et al. concluded that black bears "essentially ignore" menstrual odors and went out for a stiff drink.

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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