Menstruation has been a private and, until the recent advent of explicit television commercials, almost unmentionable subject. It is therefore not surprising that the artefacts of menstruation are not well represented in Australian museum collections, even though they are an intrinsic part of women's lives. When cupboards are cleared out or when the effects of elderly relatives are being sorted through, personal items like these are usually amongst the first things to be thrown away.
Before manufactured sanitary napkins became available and affordable, women made their own by sewing or folding absorbent cloth into thick pads. They then attached them to belts such as this one. The napkins would be washed and re-used many times. Sometimes they were made from purpose-bought fabric, but often women would cut up old and worn towels, nappies, sheets or pillow cases.
It has only been since the second half of the 20th century that the majority of Australian women have used disposable, commercially manufactured sanitary products during menstruation. Before that most women used homemade napkins. Commercial manufacturers of sanitary pads also manufactured the elastic belts for securing them. Early designs needed safety pins to attach the pad to the tabs on the belt, but around 1960-1970 belts were made with a metal clip on the tab that held the pad in place. The next development was stick-on pads, which needed no belt.
This sanitary belt is a good addition to the Museum's existing collection of sanitary pads, homemade washable sanitary towels, advertising material, and advice booklets for girls.
Written by Erika Dicker
Assistant Curator, 2007.