Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

The Smithsonian Menstrual Archive

November 6th, 2012 by David Linton

Down the Washington Mall from the popular National Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art lies the sprawling National Museum of American History with its fascinating collections of the history of American material culture: early plows, bicycles, mail boxes, tobacco tins, thimbles, shoes, harnesses, tools, stoves, and every other imaginable artifact from every aspect of American life.  The collection spans domestic, economic, military, technological, media, educational, and virtually every other realm of human endeavor.

And, locked away in a climate-controlled room next to cabinets full of objects associated with medical, disability, reproductive and health concerns are drawers full of items that woman have used to manage their periods.

Photo by David Linton

I was given a private tour of the collection by Dr. Katherine Ott, a curator of Science, Medicine, and Society at this branch of the Smithsonian and lead editor of Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics. Her knowledge of the collection, its content, sources, and significance was coupled with a generous enthusiasm in sharing it.  The item we both marveled at most was a package of sanitary napkins made of sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss is a substance commonly used today to line hanging pots of ferns and other plants to absorb and hold excess moisture.  It was also used by native American mothers who stuffed the moss into papoose back packs — early environmentally friendly disposable diapers. This menstrual management device consisted of a strip of moss wrapped in gauze and provided with safety pins to attach it inside an undergarment.

The packaging itself contained several details that revealed much about the menstrual ecology of the times. The demure picture of the “Sphagnum Moss Girl” dressed in a uniform echoing Clara Barton’s Red Cross nurses was coupled with a line that reinforced the picture, “Sphagnum Moss was used by the American Red Cross in the manufacture of surgical dressings for war time use”. This is strikingly similar to the descriptions used in the earliest advertisements for Kotex, which the company claimed was originally produced for use in front-line hospitals during World War I (or “the World War”, as it was described at the time before a second came along).

Photo by David Linton

And, in true ad-speak fashion, the product was given a catchy name: “SFAG-NA-KINS”. The package included a folded page titled, “A Short History About Sphagnum Moss From Which Sfag-na-kins Are Made”. The pamphlet includes details about how the substance was used by the Japanese army during their war with Russia and how it was perfected by various doctors and medical researchers, including one Dr. J.B. Porter of McGill University. Apparently competition from wood pulp-based products such as Kotex was already starting to take shape, as the pamphlet goes on to claim, “The SFAG-NA-KINS will be found to be greatly superior to anything else now on the market, and one of them should be equvilent to three or more of the Cotton Sanitary Napkins. The complete elimination of any stain to garments is only one of the many superior features of the SFAG-NA-KINS”. The fact that pulp products won out in the market may be due to the fact that “Kotex”, with its resonance to “cotton”, a substance more familiar and acceptable than moss, is a catchier name than the hard-to-pronounce and “sfag-na-kins,” not to mention the unsavory image of walking around with a wad of moss between one’s legs.

In addition to this rare mass marketed moss product, the collection contains every imaginable brand of pad, tampon, cup, and belt as well as drawers full of cycle management drug products including one of the original circular birth control pill dispensers. Adjacent cabinets were filled with hundreds of condom packages, pessaries, IUD’s, cervical caps, devices for containing a prolapsed uterus, and related marketing and educational posters, flyers, and brochures.

My tour of the Smithsonian collection and Dr. Ott’s insightful narration of its history enhanced my understanding of the complex connection between the biological characristics of the menstrual cycle and the social and economic context in which it exists.

Collateral damage: Throwing menstruation out of the museum narrative

July 27th, 2012 by Breanne Fahs

Last year, the media focused much attention on the Smithsonian’s decision to pull the David Wojnarowicz video, “A Fire in My Belly,” from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., entitled, “Hide/Seek”.  The museum apologized for the piece’s contents after a group of Republican representatives and the Catholic League demanded the removal of the video.  Part of “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture”, the piece depicted the suffering of an HIV positive man along with ants crawling on a crucifix.  Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia called it “in your face perversion paid for by tax dollars”.

'Menstruation' art and photo by Pauliina Seppälä // CC 2.0

This scenario is far from unique, as the issue of censoring sex (alongside feminism and women artists in general) in museums has a long and contentious history both in the United States and abroad.  In the late 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) engaged fierce battles about whether to fund so-called obscene shows, often equating obscenity with explicitly gay and lesbian content (e.g., Robert Maplethorpe’s photography). Museums like the Chicago Art Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City have both battled over the morality and ethics of censoring sex in the museum (John E. Semonche, Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through American Media). Greek vases and objects depicting explicit sexual acts have been deemed unfit for children’s viewing and have been removed from major museums throughout the world.  The National Museum of Erotica in Canberry, Australia shut down over controversies surrounding its explicit portrayal of sexual artifacts.

So how might this relate to the menstruating body? This week, I visited one of my favorite museums in the world—the Heard Museum of American Indian Art and History in Phoenix, Arizona. They had several exhibits revolving around family life, ritual, and celebrations of “coming of age” among indigenous cultures in the Southwest. One exhibit featured paintings of ceremonies practiced among Native American communities of the Southwest. Another exhibit on Apache life featured several cases of clothing and text dedicated to women’s initiation into womanhood following the onset of puberty. Notably, the word menstruation or any depiction of women’s menstrual blood were entirely absent from both of these exhibits. Discussions of preparation of food, flowers, and clothing by elderly members of the girls’ communities were featured prominently, along with the significance of women learning how to transition to womanhood. Almost certainly, this ritualized process revolved around the onset of women’s menstrual cycles, yet no mention of women’s menarche occurred.  I wondered: Has the menstruating body suffered from collateral damage of censoring sex?  Do we associate all aspects of the (leaky, “disgusting”, abject) female body with the “sinful” and “harmful-to-children” rhetoric of sexually-explicit museum materials?  When men’s “powerful” ejaculations (Jackson Pollack!!) and phallic powers are celebrated in full force, why do women’s cycling bodies hold such a taboo place in museum culture?  What would it mean if menstruation held a more prominent place in museums in general?

Taboos surrounding the entrance of menstruation into museums continue in full force.  Though a few radical feminist performance artists have featured work on menstruation (see Linder Sterling’s menstrual jewelry, or Mako Idemitsu’s 1973 piece, What a Woman Made featuring photos of tampons), the normally edgy and forward-thinking art world has yet to fully recognize menstruation as a valid subject of interest.  The backlash against the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health (MUM), once located in Carrollton, Maryland and now featured only online, reveals just how much difficulty the public has accepting menstruation as a valid subject of analysis.  In a 2007 article discussing the “10 Most Bizarre Museums”, MUM is listed alongside the Toilet Museum, the Voodoo Museum, the Museum of the Penis, and the Burger Museum.  In another article on “The Seven Most Horrifying Museums on Earth”, MUM takes company with museums on child mummies, psychiatric patients, ventriloquism, fetuses in jars, and ancient phalluses. Harry Finley, the founder and curator of MUM, said in a 2010 interview, “[Menstruation] is not a polite thing to talk about in casual society. I’ve gotten so used to this now that it’s no big deal for me. But it is for other people. Especially coming from some guy. I really get, sometimes, a horrified reaction. I can tell by the stares and the silence. Even from liberal people. When I started the museum, I thought, ‘Oh boy, this would not bother them.’ But it still bothers basically everybody. Almost every reaction is negative. . . . I think a lot of it is the association of a male doing this. Like, what is his interest in this?”

The assumptions of deviance for a man interested in the history and cultural silences surrounding menstruation, or the assumption that menstruation cannot have an explicit place in the coming of age stories depicted in an exhibition on coming of age, both reveal just how far we have to travel with regard to menstrual acceptance, activism, and awareness.  Somehow, the link between the “taboo” body and the “obscene” aspects of sexuality has grown stronger, almost invisibly, in the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves. This absence represents yet another calculated denial of the cycling body, of bodies that leak and shift and leave stains. I yearn to see depictions of the menstruating body featured prominently in the story of women, culture, and society. The censoring of these experiences, however unintentional, reduces and redefines women’s experiences of their bodies in ways that further alienate them from the power and cultural significance of menstruation.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.