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Random Genius: The Tampon


From papyrus to the plastic applicator, the tampon spans millennia.

Who pays attention to a tampon?

Its users, certainly: They're attentive on the basis of price, comfort, fit and other assorted individual considerations.

But who really pays attention?

Unless you're manufacturing or marketing the thing, you probably don't think about it at all.

And that makes sense, because they've been around for a very, very long time.

In fact, the history of the tampon could be a slow-moving attraction at Epcot Center. Look! Ancient Egyptians, fashioning rudimentary disposable tampons out of papyrus. And there! There's a group of comely Roman subjects assembling tampons from cotton.

I know. This is some ride.

Minyanville's Random Genius At its most basic, a tampon is an absorbent material designed for insertion in the body. Its invention, though far from accidental, is a testament to the ingenuity of men - and a practical response to the needs of women.

But its uses through history weren't limited to the menstrual cycle. In 1885, William Watson Cheyne wrote an instructional book called the Manual of the Antiseptic Treatment of Wounds. The Kite Runner, it's not, but it does describe how a tampon may be employed in the treatment of wounded soldiers: "When there seems a possibility of saving the limb, these tampons are introduced into the openings, and bandaged on without preliminary probing of the wound."

As the tome was published in the nineteenth century, it stands to reason that tampons, battlefields and medical procedures hand gone hand-in-hand-in-hand for quite some time.

This tradition was carried forward into modern warfare. During World War II, commercial tampon companies manufactured large batches expressly for use by the military. There's even anecdotal evidence about the use of tampons in twenty-first century wars - Iraq, for example. The way one Marine mother tells it, US soldiers praised its expansion properties and ability to slow, if not completely stop, bleeding.

This contemporary version of the tampon was invented in 1929 by Dr. Earle Haas. Its applicator and removal string made it a game-changer. According to the Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health, "Haas was inspired by a friend in California who used a sponge to absorb menstrual flow." The good doctor set about creating an applicator from cardboard, which facilitated insertion and revolutionized feminine hygiene.

What Haas didn't do was manufacture or market the device, which he dubbed Tampax, himself - a move he would later regret. Instead, he shopped the patent around for a couple of years before finding a buyer in Denver businesswoman Gertrude Tenderich.

That was 1932, and presumably her Tampax Sales Corporation did pretty well, because by 1936 Ellery Mann had obtained the rights and formed the fledgling Tampax Incorporated company. How -- and at what cost -- is either unknown or purposefully omitted. Procter & Gamble (PG), which bought the company in 1997, makes only brief mention of Haas or Tenderich on its "Our History" page.

The mid-to-late twentieth century brought highlights in the form of marketing initiatives and product diversification - along with lowlights in the form of toxic shock syndrome. What's most striking about the tampon is that, even as the technology has developed, the basic concept -- born out of necessity thousands of years ago -- has remained unchanged.

If you could get past the creepy mechanized puppets, it really would make a killer ride at Epcot.
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