This is a rather sensitive topic, but, to tell you the truth, I personally always wondered what our great grandmothers and their female ancestors did during the monthlies? How did they cope with periods, when it’s uncomfortable and annoying even for us? So, I decided to finally study this topic and help all of us understand 18th-century women. Some reenactors already did their fair share of studying and even did experiments, and they say that 18th-century period products were effective and comfy! Who would have thought?!
Let’s begin with the fact that even doctors – not to mention ordinary women – knew little about periods in the 1700s. They thought that a woman’s body lost some excess blood in order to gain physical and emotional well-being. Sometimes, those physicians advised men to do the bloodletting to achieve the same result. And this theory wasn’t the worst of existing! There were dozens of superstitions and nonsense beliefs.
At the time, many doctors studied menstruation from the medical POV but no one talked about periods in terms of education. A girl couldn’t go to a doctor for advice or read somewhere about how she should cope with her menstruation on a daily basis (what period products were available, what she could and could not do, what hygiene peculiarities these days required, etc).
But all this doesn’t mean women didn’t have their secrets and skills regarding monthlies in the 18th century. And there were some period products or clothing for periods, though, they were very different from what modern women have. So, when you don’t even wear panties, what possible options do you have?
Period products and clothing for menstruation
In the 18th century, the underwear of a peasant woman usually consisted only of a long linen or hemp chemise. They didn’t wear drawers or any other underpinnings for the lower body. Some royals and high-class females could wear drawers and pantaloons, but they weren’t as obligatory item as panties are today.
On days when the blood flow was light, many women didn’t use any special period clothes at all. Their chemises absorbed the moisture and were then washed.
When it wasn’t enough, females used linen cloths. It could be just a piece of linen cloth belted somehow or tucked under the corset or even worn simply hanging at the back (meaning that women just free bled and put one more layer of fabric between their costly main dress and the body) – because what other options did they have, sauntering around without panties?! But most probably, 18th-century females used aprons worn diaper-style. Whether these were specifically made aprons or just old and stained ones, no one knows for sure.
It was usually an apron made from birds eye linen fabric (this weaving technique created the cloth that absorbed a lot of liquid, much more than a usual textile sample) – that’s why it’s also called diaper-weave fabric, or some similar cloth. This garment was shaped like an apron and women wore it sort of like a diaper – the belt was tied around the waist and the fabric was put between the legs and tucked under the belt.
Such an apron was worn under the shift or chemise. And it really worked well. At least that’s what reenactors attest. The multiple layers of fabric gathered in the right place let a woman wear such an apron for hours without the need to change it. By the way, we’d like to thank Abby Cox (you can easily find her channel on YouTube), a reenactor, dress historian, and dressmaker, for her interesting video on the topic.
Now, these linen aprons protected women from leaks and unpleasant sensations during their periods. They couldn’t help with the odor, but 18th-century females used herbs, natural oils, and similar stuff for it. One of the biggest inconveniences with menstrual aprons was that women had to untie them to go to the toilet and re-arrange everything afterwards. Modern period products are much better in this matter.
Also, modern period products are, of course, smaller, but females in the 18th century wore multilayered clothing and wide skirts, so an apron underneath wouldn’t be noticeable at all. The upper part of it could be even compressed by a corset (often, women preferred less tight stays during menstruation).
Thanks to many layers of clothes worn in the 18th century, women could have several “lines of defense”. Over the period apron, they would wear a period chemise (it means that this shift wasn’t the finest one, something she wouldn’t feel sorrow over ruining) and sometimes even a period petticoat. The fabric was expensive at the time, so women suffered more over financial issues rather than emotional when a leak happened.
In general, the menstrual cycle arsenal of an 18th-century woman was rather wide. Of course, such period products and clothes were very different from modern options. Though, the latest trends in this area bring us a bit closer to the 18th-century fashion – using natural materials instead of synthetic, wearing absorbing panties instead of pads and tampons, wearing reusable pads that require washing, also, some women choose to free bleed, considering this the most natural and comfortable process.