He started with an elongated strip of cotton fibres about 2 inches wide and around 5 or 6 inches long
Exactly 100 years ago, my grandmother, aged 14, was sent out into the wide world from the Leeds orphanage where she had spent most of her childhood. The Leeds Ladies’ Association for the Care and Protection of Friendless Girls had equipped her with a suitcase containing a full set of new clothing, together with a number of useful household items, not least a set of dining room dusters.
My grandmother had never heard of Earle Haas. No one had back then. Yet Earle is responsible for a significant proportion of over-the-counter sales in pharmacies around the world.
An American, Earle Cleveland Haas was born in 1888. He graduated from the Kansas City College of Osteopathy in 1918 and spent 10 years in Colorado working as a country general practitioner, before moving to the city of Denver in 1928.
Earle had an inventive frame of mind and an industrious nature. He invented and patented a flexible ring for a contraceptive diaphragm, from which he made $50,000 by selling the patent. He also sold real estate and ran a company manufacturing antiseptics. But it was in 1931 that Haas staked his claim to long-lasting fame. He invented Tampax.
A visit to California had inspired him. There, a friend mentioned to Haas that she used a piece of sponge internally to absorb her menstrual flow, a practice going back to ancient times. He immediately thought of a material that could perform in a similar way – compressed cotton. Back in Denver in his basement, Haas worked out the details.
He started with an elongated strip of cotton fibres about 2 inches wide and around 5 or 6 inches long. Along the length of the pad, he sewed a cord to bind the fibres together and then left extra cord extending beyond for removing the tampon. To compress this pad into a small, highly absorbent cylinder, he invented a hand- operated pliers-like device that could shape and squeeze the pad in its moveable jaws.
To complete the ensemble, Haas constructed an applicator, a telescoping arrangement of a pair of cardboard tubes he happened to have on the shelf, one tube slightly larger than the other. Pushing on the smaller tube would push the tampon into place. For his invention, Haas coined the name ‘Tampax’, which he registered as a trademark in June 1932.
Haas had applied for a patent for what he called a ‘catamenial (Greek for ‘monthly’) device’ on November 19, 1931, and was granted US Patent No 1,926,900 on September 12, 1933.
Surprisingly, a little over a month later, Haas sold his patent and the trademark to a Denver businesswoman, Gertrude Tenderich, for $32,000. At the time it must have seemed like a good deal, a small fortune in Depression-era America.
Tenderich was an ambitious German immigrant, who began manufacturing the first tampons at her home using her own sewing machine and Haas’s compression device.
Tampons based on Haas’s design were soon being sold in the USA by Tenderich’s Tampax Sales Corporation, retailing at 15 cents for three, or 45 cents for 10.
Yet, only three years after acquiring the Tampax brand, Tenderich sold the company to a group of New York businessmen. It was their advertising and promotional expertise which would eventually transform the fortunes of the business in ways which neither Earle Haas nor Gertrude Tenderich could have ever have dreamed of.
During the Second World War, the company concentrated on producing wound dressings for the military. After the war, however, the firm became a world- wide phenomenon, not least in Britain.
In 1947, British pharmacists who visited the Chemists Supplies Section and stand number A1264 at the British Industries Fair held at Olympia that year were introduced to a novel product from America. Over the following decades, the product would become ubiquitous, and its name almost as generic to that of similar products as the name of Hoover was to vacuum cleaners.
The Tambrand Corporation was acquired by Procter & Gamble in 1997. Today, Tampax tampons are sold in 150 countries and used by over 100 million women.
Sales success would be helped by an innovation copied from the USA. By the 1960s, sales reps known as ‘Tampax Ladies’ began touring British schools giving free sex education lessons to teenage girls, as well as visiting women’s wards in hospitals to showcase their wares.
Had the Tampax Ladies been touring Britain’s schools a century ago, no doubt my poor grandmother would not have been so astonished to eventually discover the actual purpose of the mysterious dining room dusters the orphanage had generously issued her with in 1916.
As for Earle Haas, in 1969 the Sunday Times named him one of the ‘1,000 Makers of the Twentieth Century’. It was a well- deserved accolade. After selling the rights to the tampon, he had continued working in his medical practice and in various other business enterprises. Unsurprisingly, he later regretted selling the rights to Tampax, but he was glad it was successful. Ever inventive, he is said to have continued trying to improve the tampon right up until his death in 1981 at the age of 93.