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The Surprising Origins of Kotex Pads

Before the first disposable sanitary napkin hit the mass market, periods were thought of in a much different way.

What’s in a name? For Kotex, the first-ever brand of sanitary napkins to hit the U.S., everything.

The disposable sanitary napkin was a high-tech invention (inspired, incidentally, by military products) that changed the way women dealt with menstruation. It also helped to create modern perceptions of how menstruation should be managed through its advertising, which was both remarkably explicit for its time but also strictly adhered to emerging stereotypes about the “modern” woman of the 1920s should aspire to. Kotex sanitary napkins paved the way for the wide variety of feminine hygiene products on the market today by finding an answer to the crucial question: How to market a product whose function can’t be openly discussed? “Kotex was such a departure because there just wasn’t a product” previously, says communications scholar Roseann Mandziuk.

Prior to Kotex’s arrival on the scene, women didn’t have access to disposable sanitary napkins—the “sanitary” part really was a huge step forward for women who could afford these products. But the brand’s creator, Kimberly-Clark, also reinforced through its advertising campaigns that menstruation was something to conceal and a problem for women, rather than a natural bodily function.

In October 1919, the Woolworth’s department store in Chicago sold the first box of Kotex pads in what might have been an embarrassing interaction between a male store clerk and a female customer. It quickly became clear that giving Kotex sanitary napkins name recognition would be vital to selling the product, and the company launched a game-changing advertising campaign that helped to shape how menstruation–and women–were seen in the 1920s.

“Ask for them by name” became an important Kotex company slogan, Mandziuk says. Asking for Kotex rather than “sanitary pads” saved women from having to publicly discuss menstruation–particularly with male shop clerks.

In 2010, Mandziuk published a study of the 1920s ad campaign promoting Kotex sanitary napkins, focusing on advertisements that appeared in Good Housekeeping. Kotex’s campaign, which began in 1921, was the first time sanitary napkins had ever been advertised on a large scale in nationally distributed women’s magazines, and Mandziuk says they represent a break in how menstruation itself was discussed. By giving women a medically sanctioned “hygienic” product to buy, rather than a made-at-home solution, they established a precedent for how menstruation products were marketed up until the present day.