Thinking up the menstrual cup

Words: Verity Limond

I admit I’ve only seen a few episodes of Fleabag, but I do remember the corner shop scene, where Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s alter ego selects a packet of normal flow tampons while being observed by someone she fancies – and then promptly exchanges them for an ultra flow packet as soon as he leaves the aisle. Her scrabble is funny, but it also sends an interesting message about how the character expects the workings of her body to be perceived.

Buying menstrual products seems like a private act, but they’re still subject to fashion trends. Today, menstrual cups are very much in vogue, with their environmental and feminist associations allowing users to express themselves according to the old adage ‘the personal is political’.

The early history of menstrual cups is hazy, because although numerous US patents were granted from the mid-19th century onwards for containers inserted into the vagina to catch menstrual blood, most of them never made it into production. The first example was the Hockert catamenial sack in 1867. The ‘sack’ was a cup-like item made of rubber, kept inside the body by means of a cord attached to a waist belt. This uncomfortable looking set-up and others like it were on their way to history’s dustbin, when a US-based company called Dainty Maid launched the Dainette cup, based on two patents granted in 1932 and 1935. The designs were similar to modern day menstrual cups, with no attached belts or wires – but the Dainette failed to make commercial headway.

The invention typically regarded as the first menstrual cup as we know it today was made by an actor called Leona Chalmers. In 1937, she filed a US patent application for a rubber cup which could be washed and reused. But her invention suffered from unforeseen circumstances as the outbreak of the Second World War caused a scarcity of rubber, hindering its manufacture. 

Besides the material shortage, Chalmers struggled to interest US consumers in her new product. In the US of the mid-20th century, notions of hygiene and purity translated into an unwillingness to touch the vagina, meaning that a product which had to be inserted into the body was a hard sell. Interestingly, the way Chalmers responded to a culture that valued hygiene was to recommend vaginal douching in her book about the female body, a practice which is now often considered harmful.

When Earle Haas invented tampons with applicators and Gertrude Tenderich bought his patent to launch Tampax in the 1930s, they had faced similar difficulties in encouraging users to overcome their distaste for an internal product. But Tampax marketing campaigns during the Second World War emphasised freedom of movement and comfort in the workplace, helping to popularise tampons in a period when more women were working outside the home. Their production could also continue unaffected by wartime material shortages. 

Chalmers tried unsuccessfully to launch a new version of her product, now called the Tassette, in 1959 – but post-war changes in material technologies did allow for further development of the idea. A glance through US and European patent records shows dozens of versions with varying materials, shapes and seals. 

The stiff and functional brown rubber cup called The Keeper, first produced in the 1980s, is probably the most similar item to the early Dainette and Tassette cups still around today. In 2001, Mooncup, whose brand name is commonly used to describe the generic product, patented a cup made from medical grade silicone. This was the most significant innovation in recent menstrual cup history, because it made the cup more flexible than previous versions and safe for those with latex allergies. 

By 2020, some models of menstrual cups are marketed specifically for teenagers, and FAQs on company websites explain virginity and hymens in relation to their use. When the visible advertisement of menstrual products in the US was a less frequent phenomenon, Chalmers produced promotional material featuring a discreet reference to the cup only being suitable for ‘mature women’. This suggested they were originally intended for those who no longer had intact hymens, an idea relevant to culturally constructed notions of virginity when hymens were vulnerable to being broken by a menstrual cup. 

As with the purchase of any item, buying and using a menstrual cup sends a social message. Our decisions about which goods to consume have been made into aspects of our personal identities, and send implicit messages about our values and beliefs. When disposable sanitary towels were first openly sold in shops, some retailers placed an honesty box beside the display so that shoppers could pay for the product without suffering the embarrassment of taking them up to the cashier. Menstrual technologies are gradually shedding this shame – dependent on place and context – but the earliest menstrual cups could be discreetly purchased by mail order in plain boxes, like sex toys are shipped. 

In 1937, when Leona Chalmers was first trying to sell her menstrual cup, buying one might have sent a statement about not being squeamish and or afraid to differ from the norm. In 2020, companies like Mooncup, DivaCup and Origanicup are producing various versions of a menstrual technology now designed to be appealing, fashionable, and possibly even sexy. 

From the late 19th century, when first-wave feminists in North America and Europe were concerned with achieving suffrage and equality before the law, politicising consumption allowed women to cross from the private sphere into the public. Previously confined by housework to their domestic worlds, they began using their purchasing power to make political statements. When menstrual cups were revived, second-wave feminism was in full swing, prioritising sexual health and employment rights. Some second-wave feminists saw consumption as antithetical to their aims because it continued the oppression of women in an exploitative capitalist system. That made the seldom-repeated purchasing of menstrual cups a desirable option, but one that not everyone could afford. 

Cups have also been touted as a solution to the huge amounts of waste produced by disposable menstrual technologies like  tampons and single-use sanitary towels. But cups like the Tassaway were designed to be disposable, and some companies currently produce single-use menstrual discs, like the FLEX disc. Most modern cups are also made from silicone, which is difficult to recycle. But menstrual cups’ environmental credentials make them appealing for inclusion in sustainable development projects in low-income countries. Where environmentalism overlaps with concerns about public health, menstrual cups are lauded because toxic shock syndrome associated with their use is virtually unheard of, in contrast to tampons, which are still haunted by the toxic shock scandal of the 1980s.

Following various studies, certain development groups and projects have become preoccupied with introducing menstrual cups to teenagers in low-income countries as a safe and hygienic alternative to homemade pads. Where tampons and sanitary towels are unavailable or too expensive to be bought regularly, menstrual cups appear a suitable alternative. Several companies incorporate these goals into their social corporate responsibility programmes, such as Ruby Cup which donates one sanitary cup to a school-aged girl in Kenya for each one purchased. But it’s worth being wary of exuberant corporate claims that menstrual cups can miraculously solve problems relating to hygiene, stigma and school attendance for teenage girls in low-income countries, too. A study in Nepal has shown that menstrual cups have a negligible effect on girls’ school attendance, and another in Kenya judged that it would take an extended study to measure such an effect.

Certainly, the colourful, trendy cups now available on the market bear little resemblance to the unwieldy contraptions of the 1800s, as advances in material technology have allowed for a myriad of changes in product design and production. Although not necessarily created with these ideologies in mind, menstrual cups have steadily become intertwined with the characteristics of modern feminism and environmentalism – and eco-feminism – and are even considered badges of honour. Whatever the future of managing periods, the crimson tide has turned decidedly in menstrual cups’ favour. 

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Verity Limond is a second year Archaeology and Social Anthropology student at the University of Edinburgh whose work has been published by Clitbait, The Irish Times and Paragraph Planet.