If tampons and menstrual cups were both relatively whacky and scary ideas when they emerged in the 1930s, why did their respective 80-year trajectories pan out so differently? Two reasons: marketing, and World War II.
History is hardly short on men making fortunes off women’s problems, but Haas was not destined to become one of them. To entice buyers, he’d given his product a spiffy new name, Tampax, and, in 1934, sold its exclusive patent rights to a Denver businesswoman named Gertrude Tendrich. Tendrich started churning the things out on her own home sewing machine, became the first president of her new company, and ultimately steered the tampon to mainstream success.
Bizarrely, Tenderich relied on a team of men to roll out her new Tampax. They aggressively marketed the product: As told in a 1936 booklet published by the company, one of their sales tricks was waltzing into a drug store, asking for a cup of water, and dunking in an unused catamenial appliance to regale the druggist with its absorbency.
This scrappy door-to-door salesmanship was bolstered by a massive print ad blitz that introduced the tampon to some 20 million readers of Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, and elsewhere. After more than a decade of Kotex’s stratospheric rise, other companies like Kimberly-Clark took note of Tampax and churned out copycat tampons of their own, and businesses with clout, distribution, cash, and marketing firms quickly catapulted the new product to fame.
Compare that well-executed launch to Leona Chalmers’ scrappy do-it-yourself sales tactics: Chalmers placed ads in showbiz trades, not top-tier glossies. She wrote two hygiene-centric books that included sections on the Tassette, but never found many readers (despite intriguing section headings like, “My Favorite Positions for Douching” — which appears in both texts.)
Like the Kotex sanitary napkin before it, the tampon took off because it made working women’s lives easier. It also benefitted from a serious war boost: When women flooded the labor force during World War II, tampons were a natural choice over pads for a long day of work. While their total usership was still a fraction of that of pads, tampons had begun to cement a reputation as the pick for modern, active women.
Like the Kotex sanitary napkin before it, the tampon took off because it made working women’s lives easier.
Meanwhile, the war had the opposite effect on Chalmers’ fledgling Tassette. The wartime rubber shortage closed up production for years, so the little cups couldn’t be made even if anybody had wanted them. The records show that Chalmers gave it one more shot — there are a smattering of ads for the cup in the late ’40s — but then they fall off. The things got no press; they never had a chance.
The odd, failed little cup got a new lease on life in 1958, when Chalmers pitched her product to a young businessman named Robert Oreck, who had advertised in the Wall Street Journal that he was looking to buy patents for potential product development. The story was recounted to me by historian Kelly O’Donnell, the world’s preeminent expert on the history of menstrual cups, as she calls herself to colleagues. Oreck told O’Donnell how flabbergasted he was by Chalmers’ initial call: “Getting involved with such an intimate matter as a woman’s menstruation was really beyond our imagination,” he said in an interview. But when his wife tried a sample Tassette and loved it, he was convinced — he bought Chalmers’ patent.
Under Oreck’s watch, detailed Tassette adverts landed in 17 major papers, and samples were marketed to nurses. The company turned heads by running the first-ever radio ads for feminine hygiene products in American history, and by commissioning a 30- by 40-foot billboard in Times Square: It read “Tassette: not a tampon, not a napkin,” above a groovy illustrated tulip and a dainty lady hand holding a tulip-shaped pouch. (Oreck asserted that the tulip imagery grew out of careful market research: “Women’s psychological reaction to the symbol has proved to be quick, complete, and very positive,” he said.)
Some 100,000 Tassette cups were sold after the ad blitz of the early 1960s, multitudes more than Chalmers’ trade ads ever managed, according to a report I found in the University of Iowa archives written by a former employee of Tassette, Inc. But the product still amounted to an abysmal flop when offset by production and marketing costs. Moreover, by the time the Tassette was re-born in the ’60s, the company’s target demographic of busy women was already accustomed to tampons.
A Los Angeles Times advertisement for the Tassaway cup from 1971. (Photo: Courtesy of Kelly O’Donnell)
The Tassette team came up with one last Hail Mary to redeem the product — a re-designed cup that more closely resembled its phenomenally successful competitor. In 1969, the company debuted the Tassaway: a thinner, flimsier, and, unlike its forebear, made for one-day use model. The Tassaway was designed to do two things — sell a greater quantity of units and appeal to women who had come to expect their menstrual products to be disposable.
The company accomplished at least one of those goals. When it folded after a few short years, it left behind a small but passionate fan base. In her research, O’Donnell found that some 20,000 women wrote desperate letters to Tassaway, Inc. when its products vanished from the shelves in the mid-1970s. “Help! I have run out of your product and cannot find it on the shelf of any store, anywhere!” one particularly distressed woman wrote. “If you have taken your product off the market … please send me a two years’ supply of what you have left … I am tired of flooding, soiling, and itching. PLEASE RESPOND SOON!”
It was the third incarnation of Chalmers’ invention to die, which rational people might see as ample evidence of a stinker. But the enthusiasm gap between users of cups and users of tampons hints at a different story. The fate of both products has ultimately been determined by a complimentary set of advantages: The menstrual cup is a great innovation that makes for so-so business; the tampon is a so-so innovation that makes for great business. Every major pad and tampon brand has eventually enjoyed increased visibility and distribution after being acquired by a larger company, but this has never been a viable path for the cup: Why would the likes of Proctor and Gamble want to rule out repeat customers by selling every woman one cup, when they can instead sell her tampons for decades?