Throughout history, women have used a variety of protective pads during menstruation. Most were created at home by using some sort of fabric. The text below was copied from Wikipedia.
Through the ages women have used different forms of menstrual protection. Menstrual pads have been mentioned as early as the 10th century, in the Suda, where Hypatia, who lived in the 4th century AD, was said to have thrown one of her used menstrual rags at an admirer in an attempt to discourage him. The Museum of Menstruation has articles and photos of some early forms of menstrual protection, including among other things knitted pads and menstrual aprons. Women often used strips of folded old cloth (rags) to catch their menstrual flow, which is why the term “on the rag” is used to refer to menstruation.
Disposable menstrual pads grew from Benjamin Franklin’s invention designed to save soldiers with buckshot wounds, but appear to have been first commercially available from around 1888 with the Southall’s pad. The first commercially available American disposable napkins were Lister’s Towels created by Johnson & Johnson in 1896. Disposable pads had their start with nurses using their wood pulp bandages to catch their menstrual flow, creating a pad that was made from easily obtainable materials and inexpensive enough to throw away after use. Kotex’s first advertisement for products made with this wood pulp (Cellucotton) appeared in 1921. Several of the first disposable pad manufacturers were also manufacturers of bandages, which could give an indication of what these products were like. Until disposable sanitary pads were created, cloth or reusable pads were widely used to collect menstrual blood. Women often used a variety of home-made menstrual pads which they crafted from various fabrics, leftover scraps, grass, or other absorbent materials, to collect menstrual blood. Many probably used nothing at all. Even after disposable pads were commercially available, for several years they were too expensive for many women to afford. When they could be afforded, women were allowed to place money in a box so that they would not have to speak to the clerk and take a box of Kotex pads from the counter themselves. It took several years for disposable menstrual pads to become commonplace. However, they are now used nearly exclusively in most of the industrialized world.
Granny Kelley, being the very fastidious woman that she was, always made white flannel pads that could be folded & reused. I am sure she hemmed them beautifully. Granny kept a bucket of bleach water in the basement and the three Kelley girls would put their used pads into this bucket before they were to be laundered. Granny would wash them, bleach them white, refold them and put them back into the closet for future use. Mom (Harriett) went on to tell me about less fortunate girls who didn’t have a mother like Granny or the means to buy nice flannel fabric. Some of these poor girls had a tough time and often did not smell very nice.