As historians, we are trained to question what we see as a given. Despite its current ubiquity, the "sanitary napkin" was a product whose demand and need had to be created. It was premised upon the notion that menstrual blood had to be controlled and made invisible, a process that was also hygienic and comfortable. "Hygiene", "comfort" and "health" became the tropes through which such products could be sold. What then, is the history of the product that many menstruating people have come to use? A Google search leads to the history of the sanitary napkin/towel/pads in the Anglo-American world, but India and Indians are amiss in this story. However, the products were not much different.

A quick glance at the Times of India newspaper archive reveals some fun facts about how sanitary napkin producers of the organised sector targeted their upper and middle class audiences in the early 20th century (and shifts in advertisement patterns can also reveal the shifts in their target audiences). In turn, these can reveal interesting patterns in the history of the “sanitary napkin” that has come to dominate upper and middle-class lifestyle.

Manufactured sanitary pads (as opposed to cloths) have a long history in India, starting from the last decades of the 19th century. Menstruation was often transcoded as “shadows which so regularly come to their lives” and “characteristic ailments of their sex” in early advertisements. In 1885, the newspaper ran an advertisement for Southhall pads. Some authors date the first advertisement of Southhall pads to 1889, but it featured in the Times of India as early as 1885.

The catchwords being "hygiene", "cleanliness" and "comfort", the advertisement brought to the forefront Victorian ethics of controlling markers of sexuality. Manufactured by Southhall Brothers and Barclays from Birmingham and England, it was initially distributed to Calcutta, Bombay and Poona retailers. Tucked in the seventh page of the newspaper along with other health-related articles and advertisements, it was asserting its role as a medical product. As yet, the pad was not marketed as a necessity but as a source of comfort and hygiene.

Early days

In America, Johnson and Johnson developed the Lister’s towel, and this too found its way into India to capture the European and wealthy population. However, in popular history, the disposable sanitary napkins as we know it owe its genesis to the First World War. Cotton shortage for bandages in the First World War gave Kimberley Clark, a paper manufacturing company, a chance to sell their new greater absorbent paper tissues. As contemporary Kotex advertisements proudly claimed, by 1920 the wartime nurses were using these excess bandages as sanitary napkins. This was marketed as Kotex.

By 1929, Kotex was being marketed in India as "economical", and soon advertisements started claiming the role of women in bettering designs to enhance its credibility. In America, the advertisement targeted the new "modern" women. The Lord and Thomas agency in the US began to tie Kotex to the image of the modern woman “who lives every day of her life” and “fills every day with activity”. Before 1947, these ads primarily directed European and Anglo-Indian population. By 1954, an advertisement in India revealed that Kotex in India too sought to create a brand value of association with the Indian "modern women".

Sanitary napkins were also produced by the organised sector in India, but their advertisements are found in Times of India from the third quarter of the 20th century like Gandhar Enterprises (of Allahabad from 1975), Softouch (Ahmedabad, 1981) as also Carewell (Chandigarh, 1992). The napkins often also came with belts that imply they would particularly be suited to women wearing petticoats and salwars; and the introduction of adhesives to napkins by 1990s also indicated changes in use of underwear. In fact, the adhesive napkins by 1990 had a 60% growth rate.

Emerging market

Economic liberalisation eventually saw broadening of the consumer base of sanitary napkins in India. It effectively led to a revamp of the organised sector that was (as still is) largely dominated by powerful multinationals. By 1990, Veena Gokhale wrote in The Times of India that the sanitary napkin industry’s current estimation of Rs 30 crore was only the tip of the iceberg. It appeared as if marketing strategies could create a seemingly limitless number of consumers. In 1990, the marketing leaders were Johnson and Johnson with Carefree, OB Tampons, Stayfree with its adhesive-based pads, and Freshday products. Gokhale wrote that most of these products were first introduced in the '60s, and popularised through the next decades. But the advertisements were initially low-key affairs.

In 1992, Proctor and Gamble launched Whisper, and this shoved the low-key Johnson and Johnson to some aggressive counter-ad. By 1996, this playing field again saw signs of competition as the giants such as Kotex were reintroduced with covetable prices.

However, it was evident by 1998 that Kotex aimed at upgrading the non-user to this area. A Kotex newspaper advertisement showed a mother who used cloths telling her daughter to use Kotex instead. Kotex in this manner was not really in direct competition with Johnson and Johnson and Whisper’s more niche and established target audiences.

The creation of consumers was no mean feat. Various social factors, and not only economics, acted as determinants of the popularity of the sanitary pads. For example, H Kotyan, Director of Viscoti who had launched Feather Touch in 1989, contended that while in the case of Matunga East and West in Bombay, both could afford pads, the West had the lifestyle that went with the product while the East did not. Sanitary napkin distributers continuously complained about the need to create awareness. Kotyan further pointed out, among other bizarre things, some men in Kerala would use napkins to dry their shirt collars.

Widespread use

Therefore, new aggressive campaigning came to the forefront. Education institutions became an important angle to advertisements. Schools, doctors’ chambers, free samples, door-to-door selling and even home-delivery helplines were used to promote and cut across societal distinctions.The reach was expanding. Whisper launched a Hindi text for school students in Dhanbad, titled "Kahani Kishorawastha Ki/Aur Kuchh Baatein Sayano Ki" (Story of adolescent and some facts about adulthood), along with free packets. Films came to the forefront as well, and one Stayfree ad showed the busy former Miss India Meher Jesia using the pads in her march towards a successful life.

Some of these ads were objected to, evident from the demands to ban "vulgar" ads on Doordarshan on grounds of obscenity in Maharashtra in 1995, or demands to prevent sample surveys of sanitary napkins.The fact that this did not prevent such a programme shows the power of such producers to create further demands in an unexplored market as well as the strategies of advertising agencies to break through societal taboos and appeal to menstruating women in public, ironically by sanitising menstruation itself, replacing blood with blue ink.

The reach of this organised sector has however remained limited to a small echelon of the society. A 2001 survey of 380 women in a Delhi slum shows that:

A marketing survey in 2011 silently rued the fact that multinational corporations still could not manage to reach all layers of Indian society. The survey suggested that in 2010, approximately 12% of the menstruating population used sanitary napkins in India as opposed to 64% in China. This resistance by the Indian menstruating public has been rather frustrating for the giants. Attempts have been made to call local practices of using cloth as "unhygienic".

This is by no means a comprehensive history of sanitary napkin ads in India. Such advertisements can only reveal the tip of the iceberg, but the larger story probably lies in the production in unorganised sectors and households. For the one story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who created a low cost device to produce napkins, innumerable stories of cloths, rags, local companies and about people who possibly chose not to restrict the flow of their menstrual blood, remain unrecorded.

But in the world of advertisements which, for the purpose of sales, mark usage of cloth as unhygienic, such tales are to be found in bleak fringes of history’s documented archive. Therefore, oral history can do much more. This essay is a call for discussion. Ask your grandmother, grandfather, neighbour, parents about menstruation and the products that they associated with it, the advertisements that influenced them – in this way, we can know so much more. After all, many of us simply use the sanitary napkin, without questioning the fact that it is just a product born out of a century of innovative and aggressive advertising.

Sohini Chattopadhyay is a Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre of Historical Studies, where she is pursuing an M.Phil in Modern History.

This story was first published on Offprint.