Menstrual Cycle: An Era Gone By

Updated | Published
by Brenda F. Johnson Brenda F. Johnson, MSN

Specializes in Gastrointestinal Nursing. Has 30 years experience.

It has been a long time since I wrote an article in my series “An Era Gone By.” I recently found the rest of my old medical books and am so thrilled. Most of them are from the turn of the century and some are actual nursing school books. This article will explore the change in care for a woman at the beginning of her cycle to the end. Enjoy!

How has history changed with menopause?

Menstrual Cycle: An Era Gone By

Picking up her heavy skirt, Evelyn entered the threshold of the doctor's office. The wood squeaked as her heels clicked against the floorboards. A heavy sigh mixed with the swishing of fabric could be heard behind her. Sitting delicately in the wood chair, Evelyn cradled her abdomen and a moan slipped from her lips. Her mother walked around her and went up to a closed door. After knocking on the door, she called out, "Doctor!"

With her hand still poised, the door opened inward, revealing a small room with a porcelain sink, and a narrow table. On the other side of the door was a young woman wearing a nursing uniform. Evelyn lifted her head to look. Her nose wrinkled as the stale odor of the room reached her. Bile rose in her throat, causing her to cough. She fought the urge to throw up all over herself as her black wide brimmed hat slipped slowly off her short brown curls.

"Hello, may I help you?" asked the nurse.

"Yes, my daughter is having a great deal of pain, and is . . ." she leaned in and whispered, "bleeding very heavy." Evelyn's mother took a deep breath and her face flushed.

The nurse ushered Evelyn into the room and went to get the doctor. He listened to her heart, and asked a few questions. Lying on her back, Evelyn felt dizzy. She closed her eyes, trying to stay calm.

The doctor patted her on the leg and told her to sit up."Well, I want her to go home and stay in bed until the bleeding stops. She must not be outside, it is too cold, and no baths. When did she first menstruate?"

"The first time was about six months ago, and she had one about two months ago, now this," her mother motioned to Evelyn sitting on the edge of the table. Evelyn felt invisible and embarrassed. She couldn't wait to get out of there.

Although Evelyn's heavy bleeding and pain is not normal, for that time, having irregular periods were. Due to nutritional deficits and other factors, a woman's period was commonly irregular or even absent during the early 1900s. At the time the book, Reference Handbook of Gynecology for Nurses by Catherine Macfarlane, M.D., F.A.C.S., was written, the average age of menstruation was 14 compared to modern day being 12 ½ years old.

Obviously, things have changed dramatically for women in the last 100 years. Evelyn's mother had difficulty talking about her daughter's period, just saying the words, "bleeding very heavy," brought her embarrassment. Kotex wasn't invented until 1921, and it was difficult to sell because women did not want to ask for them, or be seen buying them. Evelyn would have probably used rolled up cotton rags while menstruating.

Mcfarlane wrote in her book that women were born with 30,000 to 40,000 eggs, contrasted to updated information from Medline which states that women are born with 1 to 2 million eggs. We have learned so much about women's bodies and the reproductive system that is has allowed for women to live a longer and healthier life. The average age of menopause has not changed much. Medline reports that the age range is 40 to 61 with the average being 51. Mcfarlane wrote that the average age was 40 to 50 for menopause. She got the information about what happens to a menopausal woman very close, saying that there is "atrophy" of the pelvic organs and breasts. I can relate to this description, sadly. Because women stop producing estrogen and progesterone atrophy is exactly what happens, along with vaginal dryness, change in periods, mood swings, and hot flashes.

Now what you will love is what Mcfarlane goes on to say about women of a "certain age". She tells her readers to inform women to "avoid exposure," no extreme heat or cold for the women experiencing menopausal symptoms. There is to be no heavy lifting or excessive exercise. And let's not forget the "nervous phenomenon" of headaches or flashes of heat. It was common for doctors to label many symptoms women suffered as just nervous conditions.

Let me come to a close with the best line ever. Please remember that this is being taken from a book written in 1908 and I have the third edition written in 1919. Mcfarlane instructs nurses that the best treatment for menopausal women is, "outdoor life with rest and freedom from responsibility."

Being a women of menopausal age, I love this recommendation. However, I find it hard to imagine it would have been any easier for women in 1919 to life a life free of responsibility than it would be possible for women nowadays.


Macfarlane, Catherine M.D., F.A.C.S. Reference Handbook of Gynecology for Nurses. 3rd ED. 1919.W.B. Sanders Company.

"Menopause." n.d. Medline. Web. 25 November, 2017.

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4 Comment(s)


gettingbsn2msn, MSN, RN

Specializes in medical surgical. Has 5 years experience. 610 Posts

Thank you for this. A passion of mine is reading histories of women from a past era.



293 Posts

I want outdoor life with freedom from responsibility.

VivaLasViejas, ASN, RN

Specializes in LTC, assisted living, med-surg, psych. Has 20 years experience. 142 Articles; 9,977 Posts

I went through menopause about 10-11 years ago, and I still have responsibilities. Darn it all! ;-)

CelticGoddess, BSN, RN

Specializes in Palliative, Onc, Med-Surg, Home Hospice. Has 6 years experience. 896 Posts

VivaLasViejas said:
I went through menopause about 10-11 years ago, and I still have responsibilities. Darn it all! ?

I'm in the throes of menopause and I have way to many responsibilities. I was just born in the wrong era! But then again, having access to a walk in cooler comes in handy sometimes, like when those hot flashes rear their ugly heads!