Much like Toilet paper how people diapered their babies greatly depended on their environment and what was nearby.
Initially, of course, we didn’t have diapers and children just went naked. I did see some accounts of babies in warmer climates wearing a beaded covering but it wasn’t meant to absorb anything, it was just for general genital protection. People who lived in cold climates, such as the inuits used seal skin stuffed with moss.
However, there are historical documents that suggest forms of “diapering” for the purpose of catching waste were used even in ancient times. Babies may have been wrapped in milkweed leaf, animal skins, moss, linens— Just whatever organic material was local and somewhat absorbent.
This is an excellent time to mention Elimination Communication. It is believed that many people used this training method for cutting down the accidents that came along with having unbound or unreliable diapering practices. Mothers would learn their babies signals for when they were about to relieve themselves and hold the baby over a bucket, or near a tree, or out over the street, or whatever was most convenient. The signs that a baby give are very specific to the baby. The person providing the primary care, “the mom” would figure it out. This concept led me down a long rabbit hole of people doing this in current times and people were stating that their 9 month old babies (who can’t talk) would sign to them that they needed to go and the moms would hold them over little toilets meant for newborns. It’s an interesting concept. I know most of the time we don’t give kids enough credit with how much they actually know. This method is still frequently used in rural parts of China and they have these split pant things that help them be covered and allow the child to do its business unencumbered.
But I digress.
The method of using whatever was nearby went on for a long time and we’ve already covered some of the materials (or lack thereof) used.
In Medieval times swaddling was the closest thing to a diaper they had. It was a long piece of material that wrapped around the babies legs and body. They thought it would help the babies legs and arms grow straight but it immobilized them and kept them in one spot so I think there was some ulterior motive there. A good portion of 16th century European babies spent much of their first two years swaddled or at least in their crib. The alternative was just a long gown that they free birded.
I also read a section on how they weren’t changed very often and when they did change them they didn’t wash the cloth they just shook it out and hung it to dry. We should keep in mind that this is before germ theory, so they didn’t have the same concepts of boiling rags and such to kill bacteria as we do today.
So when we hear the word “diaper” we think of things babies wear but when the word became popular in the late 1800’s it was referring to a pattern. I think people who quilt or work with tile will recognize a diaper pattern. Cloth with this interlocking pattern of shapes was popular for wrapping around children. The name stuck and now when we think of the word diaper our first thought is the thing babies wear.
A brick wall laid in a diaper pattern
The 1800’s is also when we see what most resembles a cloth diaper today. Cloth diapers have gone through some major innovations but these are the classic cloth diapers you think of with safety pins.
You could make an argument that cloth diapers were invented by ancient cultures who used natural materials and animal skins but the 1800’s is when you see what looks like a modern definition of diaper.
We can thank Maria Allen for the mass production of cloth diapers… Or so I think. She is repeatedly credited without any citation, so we know nothing about her or whether she really is the person responsible.
Now we are going to get into the early 20th century. Women everywhere are using cloth diapers, germ theory has taken off, and WWII is raging. So we’ve realized we should probably be boiling and washing these cloth diapers but with all the men being drafted into the service we have women stepping up and working 9-5 jobs. They don’t have time to wash all these nappies. So they sign up for a diaper service. The service takes your old dirty diapers and they drop off fresh clean ones. It is a beautiful thing to live in society. Milk and diapers might have been some of the first subscription services.
A Rock-A-Bye Diaper Service truck on a service call
Things weren’t perfect. Even though we finally entered an era of reliable, fresh, clean cloth diapers these things still leaked bad. Some people would add wool or just double up on the cloth diaper to help with the leaking situation but the next big thing in the diaper world was rubber pants. People at this time were very concerned with keeping the things in their house nice so this was great because you slipped it over the cloth diaper and it stopped the leaking. However, these things did NOT breath and that led to chaffing and bad diaper rash. Not to mention we are still washing the dang things! So things are still not perfect.
Rubber pants, c. 1950
SVI-Helmut, CC BY-SA 3.0
I do think it’s important to mention that we are in the great depression time, and it was very difficult for a great deal of people. Those who couldn’t afford to buy material specifically designed for diapering would use something like a flour sack.
Marion Donovan is a pretty big name in American diaper history. Marion Donovan was born in Indiana in 1917 her mother died when she was young so she spent a lot of time with her father who was an inventor most notably known for inventing the south bend lathe (a tool for grinding automobile gears). Marion went to college and got an English literature degree, got a job in new York, met a man and got married. Then she resigned and decided to start a family. Now as you can imagine this woman, who is obviously very bright, was not satisfied with cloth diapers and was frustrated with having to not only change diapers but clothes, bedding, and anything else that the diaper was leaking on. She said to herself there must be a better way. She got out her sewing machine, took down her shower curtain and got to work on a pattern that not only had removable cloth inserts but also had snap fasteners instead of safety pins. This is huge because the nylon shower certain material breathes much better and didn’t irritate the skin like the rubber pants did. She called this product the “Boater” because she thought it looked like a boat.
Marion Donovan with a child wearing her invention
She then of course felt she needed to get this out to other women as this is going to change their lives but when she went to all the big manufacturers she was met with a glass ceiling. They probably told her something like, “we don’t want it, no woman has asked us for that and they’re very happy and they buy our baby pants.” So she manufactured it herself and by 1949 she started selling them in stores and they were an immediate success.
This is a great example of men not being interested in what they considered women’s issues. They didn’t change diapers, so they lost out on an amazing opportunity.
A snippet from an advertisement of the boater
By 1951 she sold her company and rights to Keko Corporation for a cool million. She didn’t stop there though— She went on to invent a soap dish that drained into the sink and an elastic pull cord that attached to the zipper of a dress so you can pull your own zipper up. She also went on to get her degree in architecture in 1958 and eventually designed her own home in 1980. She improved her own life, she improved the life of countless women, and she viewed the domestic house wife setting as a space for innovation. She was even inducted in the national inventors hall of fame.
Now we are getting into disposable diapers. The are a lot of people and companies that came out with disposable diapers such as:
- George M Schroder, in 1947, was asked to create a disposable diaper out of non-woven fabric.
- Valerie Hunter Gordon, in 1947, developed a 2-piece disposable diaper.
- In 1949, Eastern Airlines developed a disposable diaper for long flights, which became known as CHUX.
- In 1950, disposable cellulose wadding inside of a knitted mesh came in a long roll. Parents would cut the material to fit the baby.
At this time, all of these things were luxury items. They were used mainly for special occasions like flying across the country, seeing a show, long car trips. They really didn’t hold a lot of moisture and they weren’t really fitted well and this was before the little Velcro tabs. But they were convenient for going out and parents thought they were a great invention.
In 1956 Procter & Gamble got involved. They bought Charmin and they thought they could expand the market with its newly acquired expertise in absorbent paper products along with their knowledge of mass production and distribution. They had an engineer by the name of Victor Mills who started a small scale project just to test the disposable diaper waters. They focused on a simple one piece rectangular diaper with a hydrophobic rayon liner and an outer covering made of plastic. They did have pleated edges to help it fit around the legs but it still used safety pins. It sounds like a garbage product in comparison to Marian Donovan’s snap fasteners but its name was Pampers so we all know how this story is going to end.
Initially they were too expensive but P&G developed a new manufacturing process, cut some costs and in 1964 Pampers quickly sold out and the rest is history.
A snippet from a 1960's advertisement for Pampers
Obviously there was some competition. Kimberly-Clark had been working on disposable diapers for years before entering Kimbies into the mix in 1968. They took that rectangular cloth and gave it more of an hourglass shape to fit the babies body and they used a polypropylene liner along with the adhesive tape fasteners.
A snippet from a 1974 Kimbies advertisement
By 1980 disposables accounted for more than 90% of diaper changes in the US.
P&G then introduced their Luvs brand and Kimberly-Clark renamed to Huggies in 1978 and surpassed Pampers as the leading brand by the late 1980’s. Also fancy diaper brands are putting Cabbage Patch Kids on their diapers so marketing is going great.
Now here come the 1990’s and global warming becomes a major buzzword which is terrible for disposable diapers because every baby uses about 8,000 diapers in its diaper-wearing lifetime and all those end up right in the dump where it takes 500 years for them to decompose, all the while contributing to methane gas and all the things that come with thousands of dirty diapers filling our dumps.
Guess what makes a rising resurgence. That’s right. The cloth diaper!
There are a lot of options but I saw some all-in-ones with snap fasteners. I saw some two-piece things that inserts into a cute incasing. They range from $10 to $27 and if you have the time they will save you some mad money.