Today’s topic is a delicate one but one of momentous implications to a young girl entering her transition from childhood to womanhood, whether it be 1960 or 2018.
When I was a little girl, maybe 6 or 7, I had been out shopping with my mother, and we had to use a public restroom. We didn’t frequent those very often, especially when you had to put a dime in the slot to have the privilege of using the toilets. I was drawn to a white metal container on the wall that said Kotex with a small slot to put coins in and a big slot on the bottom.
I asked my mother what is was, and she gave me the standard line: “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” Then she changed the subject. Well, that didn’t do much to staunch my curiosity. But I did forget about the box soon enough.
A year or two later, my mother and I once again had need to visit a public restroom. Once again, there was a mysterious white metal box on the wall. This time I wondered why they were selling napkins on a wall in a bathroom. Didn’t toilet paper do the job well enough? My mother’s response? You guessed it. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” Then she changed the subject.
Well, that “older” time tiptoed in one day when I had least expected it.
Now, there were seven members in my family, so there was a better chance of catching measles than in being in the house alone with my mother. That day, however, when I was 9 or 10, it happened. I don’t know if she had contrived to send the others out on useless errands, or if it was just a fine summer day when we were all playing outside (except for my older brother who was probably cruisin’ the ave with his buddies or smoking Camels with my cousin in the shack behind his house). I probably came in for a drink, and that’s when she commandeered me.
She said that she wanted to talk to me and ushered me into the living room. There was no steam erupting from her ears like a Donald Duck tantrum, so I knew that I had done nothing wrong. But I could tell that she was about to broach a serious subject. I was perplexed.
I still remember where we were sitting. She was on an upholstered chair beneath the banister, clothed in a standard short-sleeved house dress, which was typical of the period. Sort of like June Cleaver minus the pearl necklace and high heels. I sat across from her. She then proceeded to unlock the mystery that had plagued me lo those many years . . .well, for three years, anyway. She let me in on the secret that only the privileged knew—the secret of menstruation.
She said that soon I might notice changes in my body that meant that I was maturing. She explained everything I needed to know about menstruation so that I would not be frightened or confused when the time came, emphasizing that the process is a normal, healthy part of being a woman. I asked her if I should stop playing with Gloria, my favorite baby doll and best inanimate friend, as if that singular action would bring on the menses, but she said no, that I should keep doing all the things I normally do and that my period would begin when the time was right.
She cautioned me that the matter was private. I could talk to my 13-year-old sister about it but not my 5 year-old sister nor my dad, and not under any circumstances was I to mention it to my brothers or any other boy. A magazine ad or TV commercial on the subject would be an abomination.
Not long after that, there came a day when we girls in the 5th grade (or maybe 4th) were gathered up by our teachers and taken to a secure location for a private talk on the subject of menstruation. Perhaps a letter had been sent out to our mothers beforehand. I don’t remember. But I do remember that, to the chagrin of the teachers, there was a lot of tittering coming from the boys as we walked out of the classroom. Obviously, they were far from clueless about what was going on.
We girls were basically given the same talk as my mother gave me. We were also given 3 little booklets on the subject of menstruation. I took them home and put them in the bottom of my underwear drawer. I still have them. Do you remember this one?
Life went on. I still rode my bike, played jacks, and roller skated with my best friend. Somewhere along the line, my beloved baby dolls lost their esteemed place on my bed and were relegated to the closet. I traded in my white undershirt with the little pink bow for a bra and exchanged my white cotton socks for nylon stockings. I sought more advanced pursuits such as sneaking makeup, listening to rock and roll on the transistor radio, and delving into Algebra 1.
I’m guessing that many boomer girls can still remember their first day of menstruation. I know my exact date. Suffice it to say that I first took notice during lunchtime at school. I had turned 13 two months before, and I was in 8th grade. When I got home, my mother confirmed it.
My best friend started shortly after me. I remember the month and year, when we were sitting on her back porch playing a board game—maybe Monopoly. We had many a serious conversation over board games.
Boomer girls, remember how we waited from the time we were ten years old for that day to come? How we envied the girls who started before us? How excited we were when that day finally arrived?
And then followed 40 years of inconvenience, aggravation, and suffering.
On that first day, my mother gave me a thick cotton pad that I had to secure to a “sanitary belt.” No thin, barely noticeable pad with a plastic strip that attached to your underpants. The pads were thick and cumbersome, a bodily intrusion that took a while to get used to. As I recall, in the sixties, the most common brands were Kotex and Modess.
The sanitary belt was made of white elastic that hung at the waist under your underpants. There were two smaller strips of elastic that hung down from the waist—one in the front and one in the back. At the end were metal loops. Both ends of the pad were extended (see picture here) to fit through the metal loops in the sanitary belt. The loose fit often caused the pad to slip either forward or backward, which sometimes led to disaster. That is why many of us secured the pads to the belt using safety pins. On heavy days, we wore plastic underpants to avoid leakage. I swear they were just like the plastic diaper covers we mothers used on our babies in the 1970’s and 80’s. What a nuisance!
The process of changing a pad was time consuming, especially when you attempted it between classes. Unpinning and pinning and the rest of the routine made us feel like contestants on Beat the Clock.
Now back in the 1960’s, girls were still required to wear dresses to school. If we weren’t wearing knee socks and saddle shoes, then we were wearing garter belts to hold up our nylon stockings. Maneuvering garter belts and all the menstrual accoutrements within that three-minute class break called for the skill of Harry Houdini. Sometimes, you had to just suffer the embarrassment of asking a male teacher if you could be excused during class. Boomer girls, you remember all this, don’t you?
Then there were the menstrual cramps. At times, mine were so painful that I would actually throw up. I remember it happening just as my family was packing up for a Sunday trip to a state park. My mother insisted that she would not go without me, so the family’s day out ended before we even called shotgun. She gave me a tip for relieving the pain that stopped those cramps for good within a half hour: place a cold water bottle on your abdomen. It was a godsend.
Back in the 1960’s, there weren’t many school girls who used tampons, so there was no escaping the trials of using sanitary napkins. When you had your period, you could not go swimming. In our school, students were required to take showers after every gym class. There was a long “tunnel” that sprayed water from the sides. We girls ran through, one after the other, holding our towels above our heads and then immediately dried off. The gym teacher observed closely to make sure that every girl was indeed taking a shower. Now if you were having your period, you weren’t required to take a shower, but you had to take a sponge bath at a sink. The teacher stood nearby, keeping a written record to make sure that no one was double dipping. I never had regular periods until after my first child was born, so I sometimes had explaining to do.
The name of my blog is Toys of Childhood Past. How this post relates to childhood is obvious. But how does this post relate to toys? Well, here’s a stretch: When I was a teenager, Kotex offered a charm bracelet and a wide selection of individual charms for a set amount of Kotex box tops. Every time I accumulated the requisite amount of box tops, I would mail them in with my charm request. Then I excitedly waited for them to arrive in the mail. No Amazon Prime. It took six to eight weeks. I ordered the bracelet first, then the mustard seed. I still have the bracelet. Here it is, considerably tarnished, but a fond memory. Did anyone else out there collect these Kotex charms?
Yes, menstruation in the 1960’s could be vexing. I’m sure it was even more so in previous decades when sanitary pads had not yet been invented. Women made do with rags, cotton, sheep’s wool, moss, grass, and a multitude of other products.
But to me, and most mothers, it was worth every single aggravation to have the privilege of bearing a child.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.