In the late 1920s, at the peak of the Flapper Era, a series of Kotex ads made extravagant use of images of attractive young women in couture outfits in sophisticated settings. The most intriguing and subtle ad in the series was published in 1929. It shows two slender young women lounging on the deck of an ocean liner dressed for the evening’s shipboard festivities. The way we know that they are aboard a liner is the presence of a life preserver attached to the railing beside them. The name of the ship is printed in large letters upon the device. They are aboard The Nepenthe.
This is an extraordinary detail, perhaps penned by an English major turned copy writer who remembered fondly Edgar Allen Poe’s well known and often taught “The Raven.” Poe’s poem, the tale of a grief stricken man unable to overcome the loss of his dead lover, pleads with the stolid, unflinching raven for “surcease of sorrow,” some balm or drug to slake his misery, such as the mythic potion alluded to in Homer’s Odyssey and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen: the mysterious elixir, nepenthe, the drug that banishes sorrow by making the user forget his woes, the antidepressant of the ancients. The narrator implores the raven,
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee–by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite–respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
The young women in the ad have set sail on the good ship Kotex Nepenthe, the miracle conveyance that will carry them away from conscious need to worry or grieve over the burden of their menstruating bodies.
What does it mean to board the Kotex Nepenthe? What port is being left behind? Where have the women set sail for? The ad copy provides three answers. First, as the headline and the first sentence of the text assert, one can advance one’s class: “Why 9 out of 10 smart women instinctively prefer this new sanitary protection,” states the headline, and the copy adds, “It is easy to see why the use of Kotex has become a habit among women who set the standard of good taste.” Furthermore, as one “smart matron,” puts it, “Now I wouldn’t go back to the old way. This is so much more civilized-how did we ever get along without it?” By implication, women who continue to use old rags are of a primitive nature. And note the use of the phrase “Kotex has become a habit,” an apt coinage for a drug-use metaphor.
Second, as the photo illustration and the copy confirm, a Kotex user can feel young and glamorous: “For such women have young ideas, young minds.”
Third, and most significant, Kotex can help one hide the olfactory and visible signs of one’s very gender: the scent of menses and the sight of a pad beneath one’s dress: “ROUNDED, TAPERED CORNERS – make for inconspicuous protection,” and “DEODORIZES. . . safely, thoroughly, by a patented process.” [caps in original]
The ad embodies the major theme that runs through nearly a century of advertising, that one can pass through the decades of one’s menstrual life as one who does not menstruate. The difference is that rather than using a drug metaphor to claim you can make the period disappear, now, thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, we’ve got the real thing.