11 Female Health Products from the 1908 Sears Catalog

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

A woman’s health, hygiene, and beauty routines have never been simple. Below, courtesy of Sears, Roebuck’s 1908 catalog, we offer an extremely rare glimpse into how ladies of the early 20th century dealt with some of their most private physical issues.

1. English Breast Pump

The catalog never misses a chance to boast the foreign origin of a product, as if having been imported added respectability and quality to an object. Even when it comes to breast pumps. A woman would most likely purchase a breast pump in 1908 if her child could not suckle naturally, or if she had inverted nipples and intended to pop them out with the vacuum force of the suction bulb. Still, they were a huge improvement over the earliest patented breast pumps, which were nearly indistinguishable from tiny cow milkers.

2. Nursing Corset

If you were fortunate enough to have a healthy baby and properly pointed nipples for suckling, you could nurse your own child. Not as women of today may, of course, nodding off for a precious six minute nap on the couch with a large milk stained t-shirt shoved haphazardly above their baby’s head. No, nursing did not excuse you from propriety. This nursing corset bears all the same attributes and boning of regular corsets, except that the fabric covering the breast could be unbuttoned.

3. Toilette Liquid Depilatory for Removing Superfluous Hair

Take comfort that any reference to “a woman’s toilet” in literature this old means “beauty routine.” There are no ladies’ razors in the 1908 catalog, only this liquid depilatory offered for feminine hair removal. Specifically for the “neck, face, and arms,” as these are the only parts of a woman that anyone would ever see. (Judging by the negligee section, this would have included her husband). This depilatory doesn’t list its ingredients, but most depilatories of the day were either made from rhumsa, an arsenic derivative, or from various sulphides. Both chemicals could be counted on to dissolve the keratin protein in hair, allowing it to be wiped off. Keratin is also a large part of what your skin is made up of. Which is why this product “specifically specifies” that the time limit of the application is observed, lest “irritation” occur. The price of beauty could be caustic.

4. Hair Growing Fountain Comb

Of course, the places on your body that you want to have hair will often present you with all sorts of unruly problems. This device, a squeeze bulb feeding a hollow comb, was meant to help with that. With the bobbed hair of the 1920s still 12 years and a World War away, women’s hair was long, seldom washed, and brushed with thick and soft bristles that didn’t penetrate to the scalp. The Fountain Comb did go directly to the scalp, where you could then apply tonics and perfumes and miraculous hair thickening potions without having to soak your whole head. It also allowed bottle blondes and ladies with graying hair to keep their secrets buried deep at the roots.

5. Ruby Salve and Eyebrow Pencil

What you see above is just about the extent of the Sears line of cosmetics in 1908. In addition to the rouge (used for both lips and cheeks) and the eyebrow pencil, they offered a smattering of stage make-up, and a very nice selection of face powders. Of all these products, only face powder—which was usually just perfumed talc—would be acceptable to lay next to a hairbrush or mirror at a lady’s vanity table. Make-up would be hidden down with the menstrual belt and douches. If a woman chose to artificially enhance her God-given features, people would think her vain and cheap. It isn’t accidental that both products assure buyers that they are of such high quality that their presence “can never be detected.”

6. Bust Supporters and Enhancers

Speaking of enhancement—a perfectly shaped bosom was highly desirable, despite the efforts the fashions of the era took to obscure it. Enter the bust form. They were made of wire; no padding was needed because they’d be smushed under the corset, where only metal or natural mammary were strong enough to protrude. They were there to fill in the gaps, and provide a metal structure to imitate what nature was not kind enough to provide on her own. Above is a bust supporter, one of many fore-runners to the modern bra. It was worn in addition to a corset, and promised to make up for any “deficiency of development.” It shifted the weight of the breasts to the shoulders and away from the shirtwaist (blouse). This provided the wearer “coolness and comfort in warm weather.”

7. Form Reducer Corset

But what if deficiencies of development aren’t your problem? What if you are too bountiful? Then you are in luck, because Sears provided Form Reducing Corsets. The immediate irony is that the job of all corsets, if over-tightened, was to reduce a woman’s form. But the Sahlin Form Reducer goes one better. Actually 12 better, as that is the number of individual adjustments the corset offered around the waist, hip and rump area. One interesting thing to note about this corset for the larger lady is the measurements it is available in. The largest size offered is made to fit a woman with a bust measurement (today’s bra measurement) of 40, meaning even the stoutest ladies of 1908 hovered around the lower end of modern plus sizing.

8. Hip Pad and Bustle

The turn of the century was the age of Camille Clifford and The Gibson Girl, who bookended her impossibly small waist with wide blousy hair and a fully rounded bottom. But seldom does nature provide those excruciating proportions all at once. A small waisted woman would often need to use a bustle to pad out her figure. These were modest bustles compared to earlier incarnations, thanks to a trend toward straighter, closer fitting skirts.

9. Ladies Drawers

Drawers got their name because they were underpants you could “draw” up or down. This was an advancement over pantalets that tied at the waist and covered each leg separately without connecting in the crotch. In fact most female underwear in the 19th century was crotchless, for practical (chamber pot) related reasons. Here in 1908, you see the developing option of purchasing your drawers “open” or “closed.”

10. Hygienic Sanitary Protector and Antiseptic Sanitary Towels

But if your underwear had no crotch, what would you do when you came upon your monthly unwellness? Be grateful that the modern era provided you with sanitary belts, which is much better than what your grandmothers had to work with (homemade menstrual belts, if they were lucky). No crotch required—these belts tied around your waist and suspended their own rubber pocketed crotches, in which you would place your “sanitary towel.” Or, if need be, “cotton or cheesecloth.”

An interesting issue of class played out through how a woman used her menstrual rags. Women who could afford it disposed of their soiled towels in the outhouse. Women who literally could not afford to throw that much money down the toilet had to wash, dry, and reuse the cloths. A difficult task in an era where menstruation was concealed at all costs from all people, even your own household and family. If you caught a peek at unmistakably stained cloth being hung to dry inside a home (never in public view), you could make an easy estimate of the family’s fortunes.

11. Birth Control (Sponges and Syringes)

In 1908, it was illegal to distribute information about birth control through the mail. It was certainly illegal to sell any sort of prophylactics. And you can be sure the Sears catalog does neither. They simply offer an array of hygiene products to women. Vaginal douches, which were referred to as “syringes,” consisted of a water bottle, hose, and curved vaginal nozzle. They were vaguely recommended in the catalog for good health. Some companies, such as Lysol, advertised that their product, when used as a douche, would guarantee the death of germs (or any other foreign invaders in your body, perhaps even ones that rhyme with “germ”). Sponges are sold even more obliquely, never specifying exactly why a woman might need a “Ladies Superfine Cup Shaped Sponge” (internal sponges were seldom used for menstrual control; being too small and porous to block any more than a trickle of liquid). Sears simply provided the products. How you used them was your business.

The Mental Floss Store Is Back!

Mental Floss Store
Mental Floss Store

You've been asking about it for months, and today we can finally confirm that the Mental Floss Store is back up and running! Simply head here to find dozens of T-shirts with all sorts of unique designs to choose from, whether you’re in the market for a pi pun, a risqué grammar joke, or something only your fellow bookworms will appreciate. You can even use your new Mental Floss shirt to teach your friends all about scurvy.

Mental Floss Store

If you’re just in the mood to express your love of all things Mental Floss, you can also get our darling little logo on phone cases, tote bags, mugs, baby bibs, and more.

Mental Floss Store

Head on over to the Mental Floss Store to see our entire collection. And if you use the code FLOSSERS at checkout by end of day Sunday, you'll get 20 percent off your order. 

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

From Campaign Slogans to Social Movements, New Book Explores the Role Buttons Have Played Throughout History

Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon
Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

From their early days on the campaign trail during the 1896 presidential race to their current role as a way of showing support for social causes like the LGBTQIA+ pride movement, pinback buttons have remained one of the most popular ways for people to express their values and beliefs for well over a century. And now, button experts Christen Carter, founder of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Company and the Button Museum, and Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions, have put their extensive knowledge of the subject into the new book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons ($25), a cultural journey showcasing 1500 of the most important and unique pinbacks throughout American history.

“Buttons seem like really a niche thing, but they really are very general,” Carter tells Mental Floss. “They cover so much history, and the history goes deep and wide.”

For the book, Hake and Carter—who both began collecting buttons during their respective childhoods—cover how buttons have been used to communicate messages during their 125-year history, from pinbacks featuring landmark political slogans and anti-war sentiments to others that simply proclaim a person's love of Dallas.

“[Buttons] are little windows on the world, and you can pick an avenue and head down to your heart's content,” Hake tells Mental Floss.

Some of the 20th century's most important moments had a button to go along with them.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

One of Hake's favorite buttons in the book doesn't feature a political or social statement—it's just a picture of a buffalo with the words “Eat Me at Bremen, Kans. June 9, 1935” emblazoned across it. But it wasn't just the design that really caught his attention; it was also its backstory.

The button's origins lie within the town of Bremen, Kansas, which, in June 1935, was celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the dedication of a marker for the defunct Oregon Trail, according to Kansas Historical Quarterly. Two weeks before the celebration, 500 townspeople gathered in Bremen to watch a buffalo get slaughtered, which was then shipped to the neighboring town’s ice house for preservation. When the big day finally arrived, the buffalo was shipped back to become the centerpiece of a community-wide feast. The button was made to spread the word for the unique event.

“Here he is on this button, inviting the good folks of Bremen to enjoy him,” Hake says. “So it is a little bit surreal, to tell you the truth.” During his research, Hake recovered this niche historical event that could’ve otherwise been easily lost to history. “At the end of the day, they capped it off with supper, a band concert, and they gave away a baby buffalo calf,” he says.

Buttons have been used to express both support and opposition to the United States's involvement in wars. Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

While pinback button technology has not changed drastically in the past 125 years, Hake and Carter still consider their golden era to be from 1896 to 1921. “The colors are just unusual and beautiful,” Carter says. “They were able to get fine details that, [even] with digital printing, we can’t do.” Carter also enjoys how buttons were used as a communication device during the punk movement, saying, “They're important identifiers to a counter-culture movement, and they were not afraid to piss people off.”

Though the book covers buttons featuring celebrities, bands, and brands, many of the most popular ones come from the political arena and sports. Hake’s Auction just set the record for the most expensive pinback sold on September 23, 2020, with a 1916 Boston Red Sox World Series button that went for $62,980. “What makes it great is that every team member is on the button and up at 11 o’clock is one Babe Ruth. He was in his second year and was a pitcher back in those days,” Hake explains.

Even though there are buttons like the Babe Ruth ones that sell for thousands of dollars, it's still an accessible hobby for everyone. “You can start your button collection with just $10 and already have a good start. It is a good thing to collect if you don’t have much money or much space,” Carter explains.

The power of the political button eventually became fertile ground for satire in the '70s.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

Looking forward to the next 125 years, Carter hopes that buttons can become more eco-friendly by eliminating steel use and replacing it with recycled materials. “They haven’t changed that much in the last 125 years. They are pretty timeless in that way, and they are inexpensive, so whatever keeps them as inexpensive as possible as resources change in the next 100 years, they will probably change."

You can order Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons on Amazon or on the Princeton Architectural Press website.

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.