Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables is about growing up and yet, as Elizabeth Yuko recently reported for Pacific Standard, neither the book nor its numerous adaptations have ever shown the tweenage main character's menarche. Until now. The fifth episode of Netflix's Anne With an E has Anne discover she's menstruated, for the first time, on her sheets, in the middle of the night.
Yuko's reporting made us wonder: What, exactly, did people of Anne's time do about their periods?
Anne of Green Gables is set in rural Canada, roughly in the 1870s. (We calculated this from the fact that, in a later book in the Green Gables series, Anne is middle-aged at the time of World War I.) In Anne With an E, Anne's guardian, Marilla, gives Anne pieces of cotton cloth to pin to her underwear. That's indeed what many young women of the time would have done, according to Sara Read, a lecturer at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom and the author of Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England. "The most common way ordinary young women dealt with their period was with informal rags—like cloth handkerchiefs," Read writes in an email.
The rags may have been made from old sheets. Some folks didn't even bother with pins: They simply scrunched the rags up and put them between their labia. Still others didn't do anything during their periods at all, opting to free-bleed underneath their skirts.
Although tucking cloth between one's labia sounds like half a step away from the modern tampon, most women in the 1870s probably didn't try anything like that, Read says. "There was a general reluctance to use any form of internal protection," she writes. The first commercial tampon didn't get patented until the 1930s.
After World War I, commercial, disposable pads became widely available. By this time, the fictional Anne would have reached menopause, so she wouldn't have used them. Her daughters might have: Their father, Anne's husband, is a doctor, which means the family "very likely experienced and embraced commercialization of sanitary products, having both the wealth and access to knowledge," Sasha Mullally, a historian at the University of New Brunswick, writes in an email.
Then again, maybe not. Commercial pads could get expensive in the early 20th century: "Women in my own family wore homemade pads well into the 1960s—they were washed, reused, and then burned when they were no longer useful," Read writes.
In other words: The period-management lesson Marilla teaches Anne in Anne With an E could easily have been passed down, through Anne, to her children, and been used by the women of the family for another whole generation.