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.