Long before Google put sex education at the fingertips of anyone with a smartphone, girls learned about their impending periods from booklets with titles such as “Just Between Us” and “Marjorie May Learns About Life.”
Produced and distributed by sanitary product companies, the booklets were a rite of passage for generations of girls. Today, they offer an irresistible glimpse of changing attitudes toward menstruation.
The booklets were produced as early as the 1890s, but their heyday was in the middle of the 20th century, when they became part of school presentations about puberty. It was as much inculcation as education: Sanitary product manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark hoped the booklets would create loyal consumers.
“The writer of this book believes that a menstruating woman, otherwise healthy, is not a sick woman,” intones the author of a Kotex booklet from 1928.
Nonetheless, old menstruation manuals reflect plenty of stereotypes. Girls are admonished to remain “dainty” and try not to offend others during their periods. Some booklets warn readers to hold back on strenuous exercise; others use menstruation as a reason to remind girls that it’s their duty to plan for marriage and childbirth.
Over the years, descriptions of “wombs” and “canals” gave way to scientific terms such as uterus and vagina. Recommendations to douche in the name of cleanliness were replaced with warnings about the dangers of douching, which is now widely discouraged.
The pamphlets also reveal a plethora of defunct menstrual products, from lubricated tampons that are no longer on the market to early disposable pads that involved pins, scissors and multiple toilet flushes.
Menstruation was characterized as a shameful secret then. By the early 1980s, the influence of the feminist movement can be felt in a Tampax booklet that declares: “You are a woman. . . . Acceptance of menstruation is important to your perception of yourself and your femaleness.”
The now-defunct Museum of Menstruation has a collection of the booklets on its still-active website at MUM.org/compbook.htm You might even find the one you were given in elementary school.