Introducing the MUM Menstrual History Collection
Tampons. Sanitary napkins and belts. Menstrual cups, sponges, and other period products. Women and girls around the world depend on these items in order to fully participate in school, work, and play. Yet 100 years ago—when the crude phrase “on the rag” meant, well, on the rag—few options were available. Though they are rarely preserved in museum collections, period products changed history. The museum is excited to announce the acquisition of an extraordinary collection—475 artifacts and 7.5 cubic feet of archival materials—that documents the history of menstrual products and their impact on our lives.
Though menstruation is a physical and cultural experience for half of the world’s population, it has historically been kept quiet and mostly out of sight. The dominant American culture surrounding menstruation has long been dedicated to making it invisible; evidence of menstruation has been considered taboo and embarrassing. In the 1930s and 1940s, the introduction of an array of manufactured disposable period products resulted in a massive business with a surge of advertising. Though the products were increasingly visible, their messaging continued to stress secrecy—the necessity and benefits of keeping both menstruation and period products hidden.
In the past 30 years, some scholars have argued that the history of menstrual culture is a crucial and neglected area of study but that notion has been slow to seep into popular history and culture. Until recently, relatively few museums were interested in collecting and exhibiting these kinds of materials. While our own museum amassed extensive collections of lightbulbs and lace, surgical instruments and silverware, furniture and firearms, we did not focus on collecting menstrual material culture. A compounding factor is that most menstrual products were designed to be used and then thrown away. Because they weren’t tucked away for posterity by either consumers or curators, finding specimens of historical products is very difficult.
Fortunately, a small but dedicated group of people had the foresight to recognize the importance of documenting menstrual history and its artifacts. One of those people is Harry Finley, who collected thousands of menstrual products and advertisements, helped by donors and companies that contributed period paraphernalia that they thought should be preserved.
When Finley worked as a graphic designer in Germany in the 1970s, he was struck by how candidly German magazines and advertisements addressed menstrual products, compared to the euphemisms used in United States. He began collecting menstrual materials from all over the world, including products, advertising, and educational materials spanning the 1800s and 1900s. During the 1990s, Finley displayed these collections at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health (MUM), the museum he built in his home in New Carrollton, Maryland.
Finley has now donated the core of his collection to the Smithsonian to ensure it will be preserved, accessible—and visible.
The powerful thing about material culture is that, even when people feel that they can’t or shouldn’t talk about something, we can often discover evidence of their thoughts, cultural ideals, taboos, hopes, and fears in the materials they created, used, and sold. Examining menstrual artifacts can be a way to get beyond silence and invisibility.
Thus, this artifact and archival collection will allow audiences and researchers to examine how important these products were (and are)—how they helped to create space for women within all aspects of society and how they affected health standards and quality of life.
These materials will also allow us to contrast those benefits with some real problems, such as ecological and health concerns associated with period products, and the ways those products and their advertising reinforced misogynistic notions and unrealistic expectations about women’s bodies.
To get a sense of how rich and relevant the history of period products really is, here is a sneak peek at these new objects and the strands of history they illuminate.
Freedom and Opportunity. New Freedom sanitary napkins and Wix tampons both literally offered freedom from belts and pins and promised to open up a world of new opportunities, unhindered by periods or by old-fashioned and cumbersome period products.
Social Shame. Ah, the shame and stigma of being a high school girl who carries . . . period products. Product advertisements increasingly made the fact of menstruation more visible within mainstream American culture. Yet, they also reiterated the need for women to hide menstruation in all social environments.
Defining Femininity. Period product advertising also helped define ideals of femininity and beauty. Many of the materials in the MUM collection use the term “daintiness” as a euphemism for successfully masking any evidence of menstruation, perspiration, or other bodily functions considered socially unacceptable for women.
Sexual Purity. When menstrual tampons came on the market, companies faced resistance from religious and medical authorities that were invested in maintaining young women’s sexual “purity” before marriage. Advertising assured worried young women and their parents that they would still be virgins after using tampons.
Race. Despite being purchased and used by almost all women nationwide, packages and advertising for menstrual products typically depicted white women. This 1969 Tampax advertising campaign packet features only white women. It stands in contrast to parts of a company-produced booklet for parents, which featured an array of girls representing diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds.
Greener Products. Non-disposable menstrual products like reusable pads and cups have been promoted as a way to avoid landfill waste, expense, and potentially harmful chemicals in disposables.
Profits and Health. Large manufacturers assured retailers that huge profits were to be made by selling period products. The MUM collections show how conflicts between profits and women’s health arose and led to changes in government regulation and corporate responsibility.
Over the next year the museum will be working to get this entire artifact collection cataloged, photographed, and made accessible online. The archival collection is already available for study.
Help us spread the word about this new collection!
Rachel Anderson is a research and project assistant and Diane Wendt is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science.