The First Tampon
In 1986, the editors of Consumer Reports magazine surveyed more than 100,000 products and services introduced in the previous half-century in order to select those that had exerted the greatest impact on everyday living. With such other familiar products as air conditioners and running shoes, the editors chose the tampon as one of “50 small wonders and big deals that revolutionized the lives of consumers.” The origins of this small wonder, the tampon, reach far back into recorded history. The ancient Egyptians fashioned disposable tampons from softened papyrus. The Greek physician Hippocrates, writing in the fifth century B.C., described another type of tampon, which was made of lint wrapped around lightweight wood. Elsewhere, women improvised from the materials at hand: in Rome, it was wool; in Japan, paper; in Indonesia, vegetable fibers; in Equatorial Africa, rolls of grass.
Meanwhile, the custom of wearing diaperlike external pads made of cloth also took hold. These pads typically were laundered for reuse, an inconvenience that may account for the fact that disposable external pads became commercially available nearly four decades before tampons.
While other manufacturers marketed commercial pads during the 1920s, the idea of the tampon persisted in other realms. For more than a century, physicians had been using improvised plugs of cotton to absorb secretions in surgery and to apply antiseptics in the vagina or to staunch hemorrhaging there. It was, in fact, a physician who thought of taking the tampon beyond improvisation; beginning in 1929, he attempted to invent a product that could be manufactured and marketed expressly for absorbing the menstrual flow. Dr. Earle Cleveland Haas was a general practitioner, a courtly man who wore a white shirt every day and restlessly sparked off ideas for inventions and new business enterprises. He dabbled in Depression-era real estate, served as president of a company that manufactured antiseptics, and invented a flexible ring for the contraceptive diaphragm device that earned him $50,000 when he sold the patent.
But Haas spent much of his spare time developing the tampon. His inspiration came not from knowledge of the homemade tampons used by women since antiquity but instead from observations of the discomfort of his wife and of his female patients who wore bulky external pads. A visit to California pointed the way to a solution. A friend there mentioned to Haas that she used a piece of sponge internally to absorb the menstrual flow. He immediately thought of a material that could perform in a similar manner — compressed cotton. Back in Denver in his basement shop, Haas worked out the details step by step. He started with an elongated strip of cotton fibers about 2 inches wide and 5 or 6 inches in length. Along the length of the pad, he sewed a cord to bind together the fibers and then left extra cord extending beyond for removing the tampon after use. To compress this pad into a small, highly absorbent cylinder, he invented a hand-operated pliers-like device that could shape and squeeze the pad in its moveable jaws. The removal cord enabled the consumer to withdraw the tampon without the necessity of touching the tampon itself. Similarly, in order to keep the unused tampon clean, Haas wanted the woman to be able to insert it without touching it. He thought first of a metal applicator, but then settled upon the idea of a telescoping arrangement of a pair of paper-wound tubes he happened to have on the shelf. He made one tube slightly larger than the other to hold the tampon. Pushing on the smaller tube would push the tampon into place. This apparatus had the additional advantage of being easily disposable; after use, it could simply be flushed down the toilet.
Welcome This New Day For Womanhood
Tampax Incorporated was formally chartered under the laws of the State of Delaware on Saturday, March 7, 1936. The first executive recruit was Thomas F. Casey, the choice for vice president and treasurer. Casey had spent 10 years in the accounting department at Ellery Mann’s previous employer, Zonite. Mann’s other executive recruit was Earle A. Griswold, Zonite’s production manager, whom he hired as vice president in charge of manufacturing.
These three, Mann, Casey, and Griswold, would guide Tampax for the next two decades. Mann had the good sense to select men with the expertise and temperament to complement his own special talents and personality. He gave them authority and then left them alone.
A new product had to be efficiently manufactured, of course, and strict accounting procedures put into place. Most of all, however, it had to be marketed, advertised, sold, and distributed, and this was Mann’s pivotal role. Mann’s marketing plans took aim at three different audiences: physicians, the drug trade and consumers. Personal contact, the gift of gab, careful planning—all were essential to the Tampax sales effort. Mann knew from the beginning, however, that without sufficient advertising, the effort was doomed to failure. This insight is commonplace today, of course, but Mann was one of the handful of executives during the 1930s who fully grasped advertising’s potential.
In trade magazines such as his old Drug Store Retailing he emphasized the opportunities for profit inherent in stocking and promoting his new product. By contrast, the ads in the AMA Journal and various nursing magazines typically featured anatomical drawings and a technical description of the tampon; they sought to educate the professionals who were in a position to advise women about the product. The first ad in the AMA Journal asserted that “over 3,000 physicians have written to us inquiring about Tampax” and offered to send interested physicians a free package of tampons and a folder detailing their use.
The most important ads of all were those directed at the consumer. A few such ads appeared in New York City newspapers during the first spring. But the central thrust would be national magazines, and Mann began working on ideas for his magazine campaign almost immediately after incorporation. Advertising such a sensitive topic to a national audience would require just the right touch, a combination of aggressive selling and delicate good taste.
The first ad appeared on Sunday, July 26, 1936, in the American Weekly. A Sunday supplement that was inserted in many major newspapers, it claimed the greatest circulation in the world, some 11 million buyers.
These visual themes, together with those developed in the text, prefigured concepts that would prevail in the company’s advertising to this day.
Earle Griswold geared up to make tampons early that summer of 1936. Griswold was not alone. He had valuable help from two men. One was Harry Stein; the other, a lanky mechanical engineer, was J. Ralph McLaughlin.
The Education Department
At many trade and professional conventions, Tampax sponsored a booth featuring promotional displays. The Tampax booth featured a so-called demonstrator a woman hired and trained to talk about the company’s tampons. The demonstrator idea evidently originated in 1937 when women were hired to serve as Tampax consultants in department stores in Chicago, Cincinnati, and other cities. The demonstrator explained the benefits of tampons to customers and answered their questions. She might also give a series of lectures on sanitary protection to the store’s female employees.
Out of the demonstrator idea grew the notion of hiring educational consultants, women with a professional medical background who could command respect at conventions of physicians or nurses. Tampax’s first full-time educational consultant was Mabel Mathews.
In March 1941, Mathews established the company’s first formal educational department. She began hiring and training consultants, “Tampax ladies,” as they were known — to visit colleges and schools, as well as trade shows and conventions. Their aim was to dispel myths and misconceptions about menstruation and sanitary protection. It was not always an easy task. To illustrate the difficulties, Mathews later liked to recall the time she gave a talk to a women’s college in Virginia where Ellery Mann’s older daughter was a student. After the talk, one of the young women announced to Mathews, “Marian Mann goes to school here and her father makes Tampax and she told me she wouldn’t be caught dead with them.”
A key function of the educational department was documenting the safety and efficacy of Tampax tampons. Mann and his colleagues had always felt certain that their new product was medically safe as well as effective and said so. No evidence to the contrary had surfaced during the previous marketing of Dr. Haas’ invention by Gertrude Tenderich and her Tampax Sales Corporation. Nonetheless, scientific research into tampons was virtually nonexistent.
Then, in 1939, results from studies by physicians and other researchers began to appear in the medical journals. One of the first such studies, which was published in the August 1939 issue of Clinical Medicine and Surgery, was conducted by a Brooklyn physician, Harry S. Sackren. In his research, Sackren echoed questions that women as well as doctors were asking about tampons: “Are they irritating? Do they block the flow? Do they cause any changes in the vaginal or cervical tissues?”
To get some answers, Sackren observed 20 women using Tampax tampons over a duration of three to five months. He concluded that these tampons 1) offered complete protection to 90 percent of the women observed and in 94 per cent of the menstrual periods studied; 2) showed no tendency to block the flow; 3) produced no observable changes in the vaginal or cervical tissues (no irritation); 4) caused no infections; 5) were easy and comfortable to use and eliminated odor (because, unlike external pads, the flow is not exposed to the air, which causes decomposition); and 6) were favorably regarded by the patient.
In 1941, Madeline J. Thornton, M.D., of the University of Wisconsin Medical School, completed a study of 110 subjects over periods of time ranging from one to two years. Her results generally confirmed those of Sackren.
Tampax Goes To War
At the onset of World War II, production of cotton bandages and surgical dressings for the U.S. military now took place alongside the tampon assembly lines. These new products lent truth to the little white lie that one of Ellery Mann’s daughters had been telling her teen-age friends. Too embarrassed to talk with them about tampons, Emma Mann had simply explained to people that her father “made bandages, he was in the bandage business.”
In 1941, along with the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came a further shock: The factory that Tampax leased in New Jersey was sold to Johnson & Johnson. The new owners, competitors who manufactured their own brand of tampons as well as external pads, gave Tampax six months to vacate the premises.
Faced with imminent eviction, Earle Griswold remembered an empty building he had seen a few months previously on a site-hunting expedition in Massachusetts. There, on Springfield Road in the middle of a little village named Three Rivers, stood an abandoned textile mill.
The plant itself needed a lot of work. The posts always seemed in the way when the assembly lines were laid out and the maple floors were so saturated with the lubricating oil used in the looms that formerly occupied the weave shed that it took 25 years to get the oil out. McLaughlin set up a machine shop to repair old compressors and build new ones from scratch. Though the plant was situated in the village of Three Rivers, it came to be known as Palmer, after the town of which the village was a part.
The Palmer plant had to cope with shortages of raw materials and machine parts created by the war. In order to obtain cotton for tampons and paper for the applicator tubes, the company had to establish that the tampon constituted an essential health product.
Mann and Griswold traveled to Washington numerous times to make this case. Their strategy, as Griswold worked it out, was based on the diminutive size of the tampon compared to an external pad. Manufacturing tampons required far less cotton than did pads, and shipping the finished product required far fewer freight cars. Thus, Griswold pointed out, the manufacture of tampons actually freed up raw materials and transportation for other aspects of the war effort. The company received the lowest level of priority, but a priority nonetheless.
The plant at Palmer was hard-pressed to keep pace with explosive growth in sales brought on by the war. One reason for this growth was the unprecedented wartime prosperity; after a decade of simply trying to make ends meet, more people had more money to spend. But sales also soared because the lives of women changed radically. Tens of thousands of young women were catapulted out of the kitchen and into military uniform. Millions of other women went into factories where they took over such traditional male pursuits as welding, operating cranes, and running machines. Still others served in volunteer jobs as nurse’s aides for the Red Cross or as ambulance drivers for Civilian Defense.