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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Kotex (p. 329)

From chapter "Technotopia: Producing Waste"

Around the same time, another company was at work in the nascent “feminine hygiene” industry. Kimberly-Clark had been a large producer of “cellucotton,” a material the company had developed for use in dressings during the First World War. After the war ended, the company was left with warehouses full of the stuff, and plenty of money invested in the infrastructure and factories for its manufacturing. They had a lot to lose if they couldn’t figure out a new market for their cellucotton.

Up until around that point, women commonly made their own reusable menstrual pads from sewing scraps, rags, and similar materials. But in 1920, Kimberly-Clark introduced the Kotex sanitary napkin, a product which conveniently incorporated a large amount of cellucotton. The advertising campaign emphasized the high-class nature of the napkins. One advertisement asserted that “80% or more better-class women have discarded ordinary ways for Kotex.” Kotex ads also equated disposability with modernity and progress: “Just as the coming of telephones and electric lights changed old habits of living, so too Kotex warrants the forming of a new sanitary habit.” “Study lamps instead of pine torches. Printed books instead of written parchments . . . a new sanitary habit made possible by Kotex.”

The advertising account for Kotex became a hot property, in part because of its disposability. As the head of an advertising agency who courted Kimberly-Clark said, “The products I like to advertise most are those that are only used once!

Women found that they could customize Kotex pads for their own needs by changing the shape or opening up the pad to change the amount of stuffing. This customizability was a major source of popularity. At the same time, it was the beginning of the end for home-made pads in the mainstream. Beginning with businesswomen and women at school, more and more women found themselves too busy to make their own, or lived in small urban spaces with little room to store cloth, rags, and sewing supplies. Although wealthier women were certainly the first adopters, extensive advertising campaigns eventually (and successfully) targeted women of all classes.

Though Kotex is an especially notable example, nearly every modern disposable product had a reusable, or reused, predecessor. And each disposable replacement product had an advertisement and propaganda campaign designed to discredit that predecessor and sell more disposable items. Toilet paper, from around the 1870s, was often just reused newspaper or catalogue pages (although sometimes softer papers were saved for use by guests). Advertising campaigns insisted that reused papers directly caused hemorrhoids (which is untrue) and clogged the plumbing. In the 1910s a campaign was undertaken to convince people to use disposable paper drinking cups when out of the home, starting with trains. This campaign was led by health authorities concerned that disease would be spread through public fountains, and also of course led by paper manufacturers. More “respectable” travelers generally carried their own collapsible or folding cups, and some paper companies made folding paper cups that could be reused. But of course, there was more money to be made by designing cups to do the opposite. The Individual Drinking Cup Company designed the “Health Kup” to be “destroyed if you try to fold it for a second use.” The Health Kup became widely adopted, and soon had a name change to Dixie Cup.

Products like Kleenex and cardboard cereal boxes shared much of the same history. Disposable packaging in general was advertised with an emphasis on sanitation and cleanliness, since beforehand many products—even things like toothbrushes—were sold from piles or bulk bins at stores which many customers might handle. So products like, for example, toothbrushes, were marketed with their sanitary boxes as the main selling point. It’s ironic that a cultural obsession with cleanliness has led to the production of so much garbage.