Pride and Periods: What did Georgian women do at ‘that time of the month?’
Ah, the Georgian era – a time of elegant manners, lavish balls, and whispered conversations about everything…well almost everything… except ‘that time of the month.’ As you might expect, very little has ever been described in either fiction or non-fiction, about how women coped with their menstruation. Periods just were not discussed openly…period! So let's embark on a journey into the hidden world of Georgian women's lives, where menstruation was dealt with in private. In this blog, we'll bravely lift the skirts of secrecy and delve into the practices of Georgian women when it was ‘that time.’ So, fasten your bonnets and prepare for a tale of periodical proportions!
In researching this topic, there was, not surprisingly, very little information about what women did when ‘Aunt Flo’ came to visit. Women would have had to rely on mothers, sisters or female relations to guide them through the process, and those conversations would have always occurred behind the closed door of the bedroom, using euphemisms similar to those we have today.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, women lacked the modern sanitary products we have today. Instead, they used a variety of materials to manage their periods. Fabric strips, folded pieces of cloth made into homemade pads were commonly used to absorb menstrual flow. These rudimentary products were washable and reusable, as of course disposable products were not yet available. We can guess that the euphemism for having one’s period as being ‘on the rag’ most likely originated from this practice of using rags
It may surprise you to discover that tampons are not a recent development, but their rudimentary form was used even since the ancient civilizations. Historians believed that tampons were commonly used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and looking at this practice might help us to guess at what Georgian era women might have been able to create at home.
The earliest information we have about homemade tampons comes from ancient times and speaks of ‘suppositories’ for the ‘privy place’. These suppositories were in fact early tampons. Their core could be made from a smoothed stick and were about the ‘length of a little finger.’ These were then bound in absorbent linen rags and securely stitched. A long cord was sewn in and could be tied about the leg if desired. These were made at home and I assume were washable or disposable as needed. Hieroglyphics interpreted by historians reveal that in Egypt they also made their own tampons using rolled-up cotton, or softened papyrus. These home-made tampons were cheap to make and so individuals of different socioeconomic backgrounds were able to benefit. Women in ancient Greece also used tampons by wrapping bits of wood together with lint, and others used sea sponges as tampons, which interestingly, is still in practice today! Romans were also known to use pads as well as tampons made of wool. Other tampons were made from small drawstring bags filled with wadding or sponge which could be replaced
Information on the use of such ‘tampons’ in the Georgian era is limited, so my ideas must be speculation, since I could find nothing on the topic, but I’m guessing that at least some of the lower classes might have made and used their own insertables, as this might have been simpler than the messy rag method, and was as easy for them to make as for the Egyptian and Roman women. We have no reason to believe that these rudimentary home-made tampons were not used in the Georgian era—although I would assume that practice would have been confined to use in mainly lower class women, some married women, and those ‘fallen’ women for whom proof of one’s ‘purity’ was not important.
What about period pain? There are records of herbal concoctions for relief of menstrual cramps and also for the lightening of very heavy bleeding, or irregular bleeding. How effective these methods were we can only speculate, but even today you can go to a herbalist for various tinctures and herbal remedies for period pain and heavy bleeding issues which are very effective. Most households also had a book on herbal remedies which they would make up for themselves. I would speculate that the local ‘herbal’ woman or the herbal remedy book, would have been quite popular in the Georgian era since Tylenol and Nurophen had not yet been invented!
When Georgian era women got their periods, they typically avoided social gatherings, attributing it to various reasons such as illness or personal reasons. Politeness and modesty were paramount, since during this era there were strict social expectations for women, which extended to their behaviour during menstruation. Menstruation was shrouded in secrecy and deemed a private matter. Because there was no overt discussion of periods in public spaces, women found ways to communicate their needs and experiences discreetly, and just like we do today, they had euphemisms such as being visited by ‘a friend’ to infer that they were indisposed, and the family or their acquaintance would be told that they were simply ‘unwell’ or ‘indisposed.’
Men's attitudes towards menstruation during this period were often shaped by societal norms and beliefs. While there were certainly exceptions, many men had limited understanding of the biological processes involved in menstruation. Consequently, menstruation was sometimes seen through a lens of ignorance and superstition. Some men held deeply ingrained stereotypes that linked menstruation to notions of impurity or even viewed women as fragile and emotionally unstable during their periods. However, it's important to note that attitudes varied widely, and there must have been men who supported and empathized with women's experiences, although nothing was ever discussed in the drawing room. I hope that many husbands who were kind-hearted would have at least understood a little what women went through each month and cut their grumpy, PMS-ing wives some slack!
As the 18th century gave way to the 19th, social and scientific advancements began to shape new attitudes towards women's health. The advent of medical knowledge and the gradual spread of women's education enabled a more informed understanding of menstruation. This, in turn, contributed to the development of improved sanitary products and a shift in societal perceptions.
So if you are a woman who is still visited by ‘Aunt Flo’, as annoying and inconvenient as periods are, just be thankful that things are so much easier these days than they were for a woman in the Regency era!