Who Invented the Sanitary Towel?

In February 2021 the Southall Brothers were named as the inventors of the sanitary towel by David Mitchell on BBC Radio 4’s gameshow ‘The Unbelieveable Truth‘. While we had suspected this might be true, this was the first time we had heard it said so publicly, as a fact.

Following this, we decided to do some research of our own, which we share here for those interested in this subject.

First, it’s worth mentioning that at the time of writing this post, Wikipedia’s article on the ‘Sanitary Napkin’ says that Southall’s sanitary towels/pads were first commercially available in 1888. However, we are confident that Southall’s were manufacturing sanitary towels from at least 1880. The best evidence for this can be found in the newspapers of the day. Read on for some examples in chronological order.

On 20th August 1880 the Cambrian News in Wales printed the earliest sanitary towel advert that we could find. The following advert ran for several weeks:

Image courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive

The advert above says that the product is patented, although the name of the patent holder/patentee was not publicised at this point in time.

Similar adverts for The Ladies’ New Sanitary Towel began to appear in newspapers and magazines across the UK in 1880, with some bearing multiple endorsements and testimonials from medical professionals (see below – again, the patent holder is not named).

From the Ipswich Journal, Saturday 2nd October, 1880 (Image courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive)

A year later, on 1st October 1881 an advert for The Ladies’ New Sanitary Towel appeared in Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion. This was the first time that the name of the patentees was mentioned – Southall Bros. & Co, Birmingham. (It is worth noting that this publication had been advertising the same santirary towels since January 1881, but without providing the name of the patentees).

Image courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive

By 1883 the word ‘new’ had been dropped by most publications (i.e. they were known by then as Ladies’ Sanitary Towels) and later that year the Southall name began to feature in the product name. The first publication that we could find calling the product Southall’s Sanitary Towels was the Luton Reporter, on 8th December 1883.

Towards the end of 1884 sanitary towels seem to be known widely as Southall’s Sanitary Towels and they were advertised in multiple publications throughout the Victorian Commonwealth during the year (incidentally this was the same year that Wilfred Francis Southall joined the family business). One example is below. Note Miss A Cooper’s testimonial which says she recommends the towels to patients and friends in England and America, perhaps implying that no similar product is available in America at the time.

From the Dorset County Chronicle, Thursday 20th November, 1884 (Image courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive)

There are countless other examples of press adverts for Southall’s towels throughout the 1880s. However, our final reference is an advert from the Toronto Daily Mail in 1889 which says that the invention of Southall’s sanitary towels was “heartily welcomed by the leading obstetric physicians of the whole medical press in 1880”, prior to which it was something that “had not been improved upon from the time of the pharoahs”!

Regarding the 1880 patent of the sanitary towel, we contacted the British Library for their assistance on this matter. We were told that no record for a sanitary towel patent exists before 1888. They said “Many patent applications made during the Victorian era never went any further than the application stage, i.e. they never went to the final grant stage where they would be considered to be a legal patent document.” Therefore, it is possible that the use of the word patent in the 1880 adverts was the modern equivalent of a ‘patent pending’, rather than a legally patented product.

With regard to the person behind the invention of the sanitary towel, there are claims from within the Southall family that the actual inventor was not a man, but a woman named Anna Southall (the wife of Alfred Southall – former MD of the family firm – and aunt to Wilfred Francis Southall). Whether this long-held belief is true or not, it is certainly unthinkable that such a product could be created without the significant involvement of a woman and credit to any women involved in this invention has been shamefully lacking over the years.

Regardless of whether the sanitary towel was invented by the Southalls or not, we are thrilled that the Southall name is still associated with the development of such a life-changing product. We are very aware that period poverty still exists for an estimated 500 million people in the world today and we find this unacceptable. We are supporting charities working hard to combat this issue and other forms of poverty-related disadvantage.

Finally, it is always nice to hear people of a certain generation tell us that they remember Southall dispensers in the ladies’ toilets! If you have any Southall-related memories to share with us then please do get in touch. Alternatively, feel free to add a comment to this page, below.

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