History Behind the Slang Term "On the Rag"

Woman on toilet

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The phrase “on the rag” is a slang term for menstruation. This phrase likely originated sometime during the late 19th century. When a woman was menstruating, she was “on the rag” or “riding the rag,” phrases that literally described the way most women up until then managed their menstruation. Women would layer pieces of absorbent cloth or other material together until they created a pad of rags that was sufficiently thick enough to absorb their menstrual flow. They also would use pins to attach it to their undergarments. After each use, women would wash the cloth or "rags" so they could be used again.

The History of Menstrual Pads and Products

Keep in mind that rags were just one option, as women through history have used natural products such as moss, grass, fur, and sheep's wool. Stories abound of papyrus being the preferred menstruation product in antiquity but because menstrual history was often not recorded, it's hard to know exactly what was used.

Eventually, "rags" and pins were replaced by disposable pads held in place by elastic menstrual belts. Along with the rise of germ theory in the 19th century, women began to use homemade disposable pads made of gauze or cellulose fibers, considered more absorbent than cloth. It was the Kimberly-Clark company that created the first disposable sanitary napkin in 1920. The company released the Kotex brand sanitary pads in 1920. However, it wasn't until 1969 that the disposable pad had an adhesive strip on the bottom. Shortly after its introduction, this self-adhering sanitary pad rendered the menstrual belt obsolete.

The first commercially available modern tampon was produced by Tampax in the late 1930s. However, there are historical records dating back thousands of years describing women using various naturally absorbent materials inserted into their vagina to contain their menstrual flow.

The menstrual cup was introduced around the same time as the introduction of the modern tampon. For several reasons, including the newfound convenience of an absorbent and disposable tampon, the menstrual cup was not a huge success.

Because of social stigma, early disposable feminine hygiene products were packed in plain wrappers to be discreet. Contrast that discretion with the U by Kotex brand of today with its vibrant packaging and significant social media campaign.

Choices for Menstrual Products

Menstruating women now have many more choices than their mothers and grandmothers had. To start with, modern disposable menstrual products come in a myriad of different styles and sizes. Thanks to advances in the technology of absorbent materials menstrual pads are much thinner than they used to be.

There are also great options to go retro to manage your flow. Many women are going back "on the rag" and choosing to use environment-friendly reusable cloth sanitary pads. Another retro flow-catching option gaining popularity is the menstrual cup. There are now several different manufacturers of menstrual cups to choose from.

The absorbent and leak-proof panty has also made its entry into the feminine hygiene product market. These undergarments are produced by companies such as Thinx and Lunapanties. These non-disposable options for when you are "on the rag" are far from rags.

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Article Sources
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  1. North BB, Oldham MJ. Preclinical, clinical, and over-the-counter postmarketing experience with a new vaginal cup: menstrual collectionJ Womens Health (Larchmt). 2011;20(2):303-311. doi:10.1089/jwh.2009.1929

  2. Delaney J, Lupton MJ, Toth E. The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation. Illinois: University of Illinois Press; 1988.

  3. Kimberly-Clark. Cotton substitute improves women's lives: disposable feminine sanitary pads story.

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