Seamless pattern of different menstrual hygiene products: menstrual cup, sanitary pad, tampon, panty liner

Credit: Getty Images

Material culture

A museum for menstruation

Harry Finley, A&S '64, spent the 1970s and early '80s as a graphic designer in Europe. Since much of his work was for magazines, he turned to the newsstand for inspiration. Amid the pan-European collection of glossy titles he found something else, even if he didn't quite know it at the time: a lifelong interest that would bring him fame, and some infamy, and would culminate in a collection of artifacts recently acquired by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

What was this revelatory discovery? Ads for menstrual products. Tampons, mostly. "I noticed that the approach varied—from conservative countries, like Spain, to nonconservative [regions] like Scandinavia," Finley says. "So, I started collecting these ads."

The no-nonsense Nordics, Finley explains, were blunt when talking about menstrual hygiene, while more timorous nations, the United States among them, he would soon learn, cloaked ads in euphemisms and neutral imagery such as flowers. The varying degrees of squeamishness surrounding a natural bodily function piqued Finley's curiosity, and his interest, and his ad collection grew. After returning to the U.S. and working a series of dull government jobs, "I decided I had to do something in my life I really enjoyed," he says. "I thought, Well, I've got all these ads for menstrual products, why don't I see if I can maybe make a museum?"

First, he turned to the fledgling internet, among other resources, to see if such a repository already existed. The tampon-makers he reached out to seemed aghast at the very idea. Realizing he couldn't have just a "museum of magazines," he began assembling a wide array of historical menses artifacts, some purchased over eBay, others commissioned, including hiring a costume-maker to re-create a rubberized menstrual apron that had been advertised in a 1914 Sears catalog. "I had the chance to allow the public to see what was usually not so public," Finley says, and to shine a light on the material culture of women's health, which is often marginalized.

Even though the basement of his suburban New Carrollton, Maryland, home was a less-than-ideal setting for the project, he set about making it a legitimate gallery. "I'm not a handyman by any means, but I tremendously enjoyed setting up the museum," he says of a homespun project whose graphic wall displays were churned out on a first-gen Macintosh printer.

The museum debuted on July 31, 1994, and word that a man had opened a museum of menstruation hit the news cycle hard. A media scrum ensued with publications ranging from Playboy to The Washington Post to Seventeen writing about his basement. The Daily Show visited with their cameras, and shock-jock Howard Stern put Finley on a mic. This esoteric hobby elicited hate mail and barbs from magazines telling him to "stick to jock itch," though, and it eventually wore him down.

Finley shuttered the appointment-only basement museum in 1998 after some 1,500 visitors had come down the stairs. He pivoted to a website and a virtual museum—which he called the Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health—and continued collecting menstrual artifacts and exploring the cultural history of the monthly cycle. He studied philosophy at Hopkins, so he wasn't a dry, medical academic on the subject; his writing was light and breezy, becoming scornfully satirical when discussing products such as Pristeen —essentially a deodorant marketed to menstruating teenagers in the 1960s and '70s. "Companies use shame to sell products to cover up the existence of menstruation," Finley says. "And men use shame to keep women in their place."

His earnest pursuit eventually won over skeptics. "Tampax became very friendly, and I got to know people there," Finley says, adding that the company donated boxes of materials, as did consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. Artifacts trickled in from all over including, he says reverently, "probably the first three commercial tampons ever made in the world," which date to the 1920s. Supporting archival materials from the Sanitary Products Co. referred to the proto-tampons as "internal sanitary napkins."

"A collection like this is fundamental in providing insight into how women in the past experienced menstruation."
Alexandra Lord
Chair of Medicine and Science, Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Finley soon had the largest collection of menstruation materials in the country. And others, besides Howard Stern, had taken notice. "Staff at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History have been aware of the unique nature of the collection and its importance since the 1990s," says Alexandra Lord, who chairs the museum's Division of Medicine and Science.

Finley offered to donate the collection to the Smithsonian, and in the spring of 2023, the museum acquired some 475 objects and approximately 7.5 cubic feet of archival materials. An assemblage born in a basement was now bound for the institution known as America's Attic. "Before this acquisition, our collection reflected the cultural invisibility of menstruation," said the Museum of American History director, Anthea M. Hartig, in a release announcing the deal. This was a glaring omission, she added, considering that "menstruation impacts nearly half the world's population." The museum is presently digitizing the contents to make it available to researchers around the world.

"A collection like this is fundamental in providing insight into how women in the past experienced menstruation," Lord says. "These objects also provide insight into how menstruation was stigmatized. The fact that manufacturers of menstrual products taught women to be discreet and to hide menstruation speaks volumes about how and why women's health has often been marginalized. If you are embarrassed to acknowledge that you menstruate, you are unlikely to ask important questions of your doctor or to advocate for a better understanding of women's health."

"We at the museum," she adds, "are incredibly dependent on passionate collectors like Harry Finley."

Brennen Jensen is a senior staff writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine.