If Frank Turner is a self-confessed history nerd, then mark me out as a self-confessed public health nerd. Yup, that’s my jam! Public health innovations have and will continue to change peoples lives for the better. From John Snow’s work in Soho (1) in 1854 identifying the transmission of cholera by the Broad Street Pump, to the declaration of the eradication of smallpox by the World Health Organisation in 1980 (2), public health initiatives will continue to improve the health of populations worldwide.
It could be argued from an outsider’s perspective, however, that public health isn’t all that exciting and actually, on reflection, current public health concerns are trying to take away some of the fun things in life from people, by focusing on reduction in tobacco smoking and alcohol related harm. So, we don’t often think to praise the people who have made some of the greatest achievements in health improvement. Someone like Gertrude Tendrich. I don’t know anyone who knows who she is, myself included, until this project was suggested but I guarantee that you all know what she created. That creation was the company Tampax.
Yup. For the people pulling a face when they read that, don’t worry, I’m not heading into anything that will set off your squeamishness. Tendrich was born in Germany on 10th October 1890 (3), and had moved to the United States of America. Whilst she did not invent the tampon itself – that credit goes to Dr Earle C. Haas in 1931, Tendrich bought the patent from him in 1933, and with that patent, founded Tampax. She introduced the first applicator tampon that we know and utilise now, with an estimated 11,000 – 16,0000 sanitary products used by women in their lifetime (4).
Considering the inability for many people to discuss menstruation in a grown up, fully informed way, the word period was first spoken in a US television advert by a young Courtney Cox in 1985 (5), it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that there was much opposition to the use of tampons from religious groups. The beliefs that tampons would encourage women to touch themselves and that the use of tampons “take your virginity” (6) still exist today.
But despite this reaction, the creation of Tampax had a part to play in World War Two, and no, not for the insertion into bullet wounds that Google searches seem determined that you read when searching for Tendrich. With men away fighting, the need for women to enter the work force increased and a practical solution to working whilst menstruating was provided for the first time, through the availability of Tampax. (7) Tampax factories also then began to aid the war effort, turning their production lines towards making bandages and wound dressings. (8) The positive impact of a company founded by a German born woman on the American war effort during the Second World War, seems like something that should make any history nerd smile.
Tendrich is someone I think that most people will feel has quite a minor role to play in history. Many factories would have made bandages and dressings during the Second World War, but this is where the public health nerd in me rises. Despite the fact that menstruation is still a difficult, almost taboo subject for many people to talk about, the mass production of tampons clearly changed conditions for women, to the point that we are still using a variated version of the product she marketed and made. Considering the campaigns in the UK addressing period poverty for menstruating teenagers and the impact on school attendance, tampons and other means of sanitary protection are a necessity to anyone who menstruates. To be able to work, go to school, or do any of the (sometimes odd) things that adverts for tampons suggest you do – this is a public health intervention, and one at its best. And like most public health interventions, it’s not one that many people give all that much thought too, but it has made a significant difference to women
Written by Tracey Wise (she/her) from London, UK Follow her on Twitter – and support her organization Safe Gigs For Women!
This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.
- Snow, J. On the Mode of Communication of Cholera. (John Churchill, 1855.)
- World Health Organisation, Smallpox. (No date, https://www.who.int/csr/disease/smallpox/en/)
- Find a Grave. Gertude Voss Schulte – Tenderich Sears. (2013, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/112984128/gertrude-schulte_tenderich_sears).
- London Assembly Environmental Committee. Single Use Plastics: Unflushables. (2018)
- Mertens, M. Great Moments in Menstrual History. (2015, The Cut, https://www.thecut.com/2015/09/great-moments-in-menstrual-history.html)
- Brannagan, T. A Tampon Timeline. (2019, Thinx, https://www.shethinx.com/blogs/womens-health/tampon-timeline-history-applicators)
- The Society Pages. Advertising during war: Girls in slacks hail tampax. (2008, https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2008/03/29/advertising-during-war-girls-in-slacks-hail-tampax/)
- History of Tampax Tampons. (No date, https://tampax.co.uk/en-gb/about-us/history-of-tampax-tampons)