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Bloody Archives: An Archival Insight into the History of Sanitary Towels

Given the number of people menstruating at any one time in the United Kingdom, you would have thought it would be a key interest of past governments. And yet the UK National Archives collections show remarkably little about the history of menstruation and sanitary products. Maybe this should not be a surprise, given how male-dominated government has been for the majority of the time span of our collections.

Menstruation-related records may be few and far between, but the ones we have in the collection address a variety of issues: the patenting of period-related technology, discussion around taxation, worries about monopolies on the market, and health concerns. Our records even have discussions about the installation of automatic machines for the disposal of sanitary items in government departments. After all, this was an issue that not only affected the general population but also specifically government employees, particularly as women moved into the civil service in greater numbers.

Aging paper, with "Sanitary towels: A Survey of Housewives Habits for the Board of Trades," and "Closed until 1972" on the front cover
Front cover of the survey results, Sanitary Towels: A study of supplies and demand for the Board of Trade, 1942. (RG 23/8, The National Archives.)

Amongst the often mundane and practical interests in sanitary products by the government is a curious item that gives a much more personal perspective. It’s a report from 1942 titled “Sanitary Towels: A Survey of Housewives’ Habits for the Board of Trade.”[1]

From 1941, the UK government undertook a number of social surveys to help them understand wartime attitudes and consumer habits, covering subjects from food consumption to clothing distribution. One unexpected subject was sanitary towels. The motivation was largely practical: there were supply issues affecting the making of sanitary towels (the primary sanitary product at this time) due to the war effort disrupting trade routes, leading to labor shortages, and the prioritizing of certain materials for other uses. From late 1941, the government was contacted by concerned industry leaders, and even individual drapers’ shops, stressing the need for these supply issues to be addressed.[2]

In response, the Board of Trade commissioned this social survey, which aimed to capture basic data on the use of sanitary towels by housewives. Prior to this, in December 1941, almost 1,500 questionnaires had been completed by working women in factories and offices. The location of these survey results remains unknown, though a comment in the opening of this report notes, “It may be said however that great differences were found between the habits of housewives and working women.”[3]

The Wartime Social Survey employed 55 specifically trained interviewers, who visited a representative sample of the population (ways of sampling changed at different times, but often used electoral registers).[4] The workers across all the surveys in 1942 were women, which was presumably helpful for this particular topic, one which caused some discomfort at the time. The short preface to the survey notes that the reception was “on the whole good,” but “occasionally somewhat embarrassed.” [5]

Questions from the Sanitary towels: A Survey of Housewives Habits for the Board of Trades survey
Sample blank survey from Sanitary Towels: A study of supplies and demand for the Board of Trade, 1942. (RG 23/8, The National Archives.)

The result is a curious little statistical survey with answers from a sample of women from all different walks of life (although it is now acknowledged that people of other genders can have periods, this was not recognized at the time; the survey therefore only interviewed women). The survey reached out to 1,468 women from industrial and rural areas all over the country, from Blackpool to Glasgow to Maidstone. The participant sample was divided into four primary social categories. Those in class A were likely to live in expensive suburbs and generally had a maid, at least 8 rooms, and good education for their children. Those in class D, on the other hand, had incomes under £125, no domestic help or telephone, no gardens, and were likely to live in cheaper council houses in working-class or slum areas.[6] Although it was acknowledged that the sample was relatively small, it was unique for the time.

In an attempt to understand the supply issues, participants were asked where they bought their sanitary products. The majority bought them from the drapers, closely followed by chemists. Half of those surveyed had experienced difficulties obtaining sanitary towels, although only one blamed shortages; the women also gave price, quality, and brand choices as explanations. One particular area of focus was on reception areas (who received evacuees) and bombed areas. These areas often had a great influx or reduction of people, affecting levels of demand locally. A very small percentage (0.6 to 2.4 percent) of women used slot machines to purchase their sanitary products, while some resorted to making their own.

The questions show significant class differences in access to sanitary products, with a sharp dissimilarity in the number of sanitary towels used each month according to the social group. While the overall average was 10.5 sanitary towels per month, those in class D used significantly fewer products on average, probably because of the expense. Such trends still continue 80 years later, as illustrated by campaigns around period poverty. The overall average numbers used had increased since prewar times, and this was attributed to greater education about hygiene and the increased visibility of sanitary towels in the workplace.

Drawing of a sanitary belt - a belt with a strip of absorbent material in the middle
Sanitary belt design, 1947. Registered by Anglobasque Industries Ltd. (BT 52/2390/851963, The National Archives.)

At the time of this survey in 1942, there were two predominant types of products on the market: reusable sanitary towels and disposable ones. Current trends in 2022 see more people turning to reusable products for environmental reasons. But at the time there was a move to more single-use products, which were presumably more convenient and a sign of women’s increased purchasing power.[7] About one-third of the women surveyed used washable sanitary towels, while two-thirds used packet sanitary towels. Again, social background influenced this, and there was a similar contrast between urban and rural participants. Washable products were also more common among the older women surveyed, illustrating that younger women were more likely to be swayed toward newer products. There was also some use of tampons recorded, although this was relatively rare. Records show that Tampax was trying to persuade the government to encourage more tampon use, as they used less raw materials and took up less space. [8]

This was in the era before sanitary towels included an adhesive strip, which became popular in the 1980s. Therefore, a mechanism was needed to keep the towel in place. The most common device used was a sanitary belt, which would sit on a person’s waist with two clips attached connected to the towel. A minority of women instead used tape, elastic, or pins. The implication is these alternatives were used due to the lack of available sanitary belts and, fundamentally, their cost. In this era, women had to be resourceful to create and adapt essential menstrual hygiene products to their needs. The survey shows how sanitary habits were influenced by financial choices and the impacts of World War II on material scarcity.

However, this document also leaves further questions. What was the extent of men’s awareness of sanitary towels and these associated issues? Has the government’s interest and involvement in such issues increased over time?

Ultimately, this survey was used to determine a plan for the next two years of sanitary product supplies. Work started immediately, with industry leaders and the Ministry of Supply negotiating imports from America (a particularly tricky thing to do in wartime). The pressure was slowly relieved, and access to sanitary towels improved.

This archival item is rare in our collections, and yet a powerful one in an era where little survives, or was directly generated, to poll women’s own views on menstruation and sanitary products. Even these basic statistics can help us hear women’s voices in the archives. In this survey we hear the anonymous voices of all sorts of women: young, old, rural, city-dwelling, rich, and poor, on a topic that had a fundamental impact on their daily lives. This survey ultimately prompted the government to act in the interest of women all across the country.

A copy of “Sanitary Towels: A Survey of Housewives’ Habits for the Board of Trade” has been transcribed as part of the MoI Digital project on a history of the Ministry of information, 1939–46.

Notes

  1. “Sanitary Towels: A Survey of Housewives’ Habits for the Board of Trade.” Government Social Survey Department: Reports and Papers, 1942. The National Archives (TNA), RG23/8. https://moidigital.ac.uk/reports/wartime-social-survey/wartime-social-survey-rg-23-8/.
  2. General policy file, Sanitary towels. Board of Trade: Industries and Manufactures Department: Correspondence and Papers. TNA, BT 64/1649.
  3. TNA, RG23/8.
  4. War-time Social Survey – policy and organisation, 1940-1944. TNA, INF 1/263.
  5. TNA, RG23/8.
  6. Social classification: definitions and descriptions of social classes covered by survey, TNA, RG 40/143.
  7. TNA, BT 64/1649.
  8. TNA, BT 64/1649.

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