The tampon… something we’re so intimate with, yet know so little about.

Gift Aunt FloOf late I’ve had to become more up-close and personal with tampons than ever before in my life. For whatever the biological reasons, my “monthly gift” has decided to shower me with presents each month. No… shower is too mild. It’s more like a sudden and raging storm creating jaw-dropping moments of downpours, thunder and lighting, culminating with me yelling something like, “Surprise! You’re here early and I’m out to dinner in a white mini skirt!”

Not the kind of shower a girl dreams about.

The amount of tampons I go through each month is staggering. I can’t give you an exact number, but let’s just say I’m personally responsible for P&G’s rising stock trend. All of this extended tampon-time got me to thinking, “What’s the tampon story?” Clearly, it’s something that’s changed women’s lives and worthy of some historical investigating.

Here’s what I’ve discovered – the good, the bad, and the bloody.

Tampaxpatent_Earl HaasThe tampon as we know it, applicator and all, was first invented in 1929 by Denver doctor, Earle Haas, who described it as a “catamenial device” (ancient Greek for “monthly”). I say, as we know it, because apparently well prior to Haas, women have been plugging up with rustic forms of tampons for ages (“plug” being a literal translation of the French word tampion). As early as 15th century BC, there’s written evidence of Egyptian women using tampons fashioned out of softened papyrus. Tampons made from wool, moss and other natural materials have been used around the world since that time, and in some under developed nations, still are.

What likely inspired Dr. Haas’s tampon design were compressed cotton plugs used in surgery to absorb secretions and stop hemorrhaging. Even prior to that, in the 18th century, medical predecessors used similar cotton plugs treated with antiseptic and anti-inflammatory chemicals to stop bleeding from bullet wounds.

It’s interesting to think that our little period friends have such a noble beginning in the business of saving lives.

Moving along the modern tampon timeline, in 1933, articles reveal that Gertrude Tendrich, a Denver businesswoman, bought Dr. Haas’s patent for $32,000 and started manufacturing tampons at home on her sewing machine. She eventually founded Tampax and was the brand’s first President.

About a decade later, German gynecologist, Dr. Judith Esser-Mittag, developed an applicator-free tampon. An avid swimmer unsatisfied with the available feminine hygiene choices, she created her own “o.b.” version, ohne binde in German meaning “without napkins.” She designed these tampons to be inserted by finger – hence the term digital tampon. These effective, and inconspicuous bullets (as I call them) were eventually mass-produced and launched throughout Europe. In 1974, o.b.® was sold to Johnson and Johnson.

It makes me smile to know that it was two smart and successful women who initiated world tampon take-over, especially during a time when women were still so heavily oppressed by gender discrimination.

I personally can’t imagine what life would be like if we only had stick-on pads to rely on. How many beach days, soccer games, yoga classes, spa days, cute butt hugging outfits, etc. would I have missed out on? Even using Always Maxi Long Super Pads, I’d always leak. And as for “wings” the only ones that seem to help me come with an extra side of Ranch and get washed down with cold beers. Just the thought of having to straddle those soak-wads, for 6 days and nights makes me cringe. So thank you, Ms. Gertrude and Dr. Judith, thank you!

No disrespect to you pad lovers out there. It’s a personal choice to live un-plugged. I’m just happy we have choices and women don’t have to deal with those sanitary belt contraptions of generations past.

maxi pad

As much I’m team tampon, they do get a few thumbs down, even in my book. With technology and the increased ability of absorbancy, Toxic Shock Syndrome, a debilitating and even lethal condition discovered in the 80’s, occurs due to toxic bacteria growth speculated to result from prolonged tampon usage. Happily following TSS guidelines will totally prevent this life threatening condition.

The other tampon turn-offs are the plastic applicators and “scented” varieties. Plastic problem first – do we really need more plastic washing up on our beaches or filling our landfills? Is there anything more disgusting than strolling through the sand and having a tampon applicator wiggle up through your toes? Please ladies, use the biodegradable cardboard ones.

Is there anything more disgusting than strolling through the sand and having a tampon applicator wiggle up through your toes?

As for “with fragrance”, oh God, where do I start? First of all, why would you want an artificial floral scent wafting up from your lady garden, as it were? We all know during that time it’s no time to stop and smell the roses.

Floral scentAnd do we really need more chemicals absorbed in our bodies, especially via the vajayjay? I say nay-nay! As it is, the bleaching process involved in manufacturing the cotton and rayon used in tampons and it’s potential toxic affects to our health raise enough questions in certain medical circles. Why add to it?

What’s more, feminine “odor” blossoms after the menstrual fluid hits the air, so an internal deodorizer is pure nonsense, and in my opinion, just another way for companies to profit from women’s insecurities. So, when it comes to tampons, fragrance-free is the only way to be!

Happily, there are all-natural tampons on the market today. Although not easy to find and more costly, I’m happy to know they’re out there and am confident we’ll be seeing more of them as we do other organic products on the shelves these days.


In doing my research I came across a feminine hygiene product I’d never heard of before. Intercourse tampons are string-less, soft, sponge-like tampons designed to be used during intercourse, swimming, sauna and bathing. Now… I’m open minded, but with no string, I can’t imagine fishing one out would be very, um, practical.

As the saying goes, there’s a cover for every pot, and apparently a tampon for every petunia.

Can someone please explain to me how the hell we’re supposed to choose a tampon size through absorbency range… in grams? Are we supposed to stand over a scale, or drip into a cup and weigh menstrual fluid?

I have two personal gripes relating to tampons, and I’m sure I’m not alone with them. First grievance: can someone please explain to me how the hell we’re supposed to choose a tampon size through absorbency range… in grams? Are we supposed to stand over a scale, or drip into a cup and weigh menstrual fluid? I’d bet all the tampons in the world that not one woman on the planet can actually tell me how many grams (ounces or tablespoons for that matter!) she’s secreting during her cycle. C’mon R&D folks, you must do better than that!

Queen_CleopatraMy second tampon tiff – why does Uncle Sam tax tampons in most states? Why are feminine hygiene products considered a luxury and not a necessity, therefore taxable? It’s a bloody outrage. I wonder if this kind of taxing travesty would exist if it were Aunt Sam wanting you and your tax dollars all these decades.

Complain as I may, if tampons were pulled from the market I’d be devastated. Undoubtedly I’d fashion some kind of stopgap out of God-knows what – likely from the hardware store given my background. Hey, if papyrus was good enough for Cleopatra…

To sum up my tam-pondering I’ve come to this conclusion: Tampons are a lot like relationships. They have interesting and sometimes surprising beginnings. They have their good and bad points. If you abuse the relationship, you’ll get hurt. Likewise, if you respect it, it can change your life for the better. But know going in, if you commit to it, there will usually be some kind of string attached, period.

About This Contributor

Norma VallyA seasoned veteran of home improvement and all around woman in the know, Norma Vally’s media career boasts four seasons as host of Discovery Home Channel’s series Toolbelt Diva and a radio show on Sirius Satellite by the same name. You can find her on Women You Should Know every Friday as the author of our Fix-It Friday column, which she delivers with her signature, lively commentary.

Norma is also the author of the book series Norma Vally’s Fix-ups; has appeared on Today, NBC Nightly News, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, TLC, HGTV, DIY, Hallmark, etc; has been featured in Women’s Health, People, Woman’s Day, Glamour, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and New York Times.