Who Invented Diapers
Written by Zawareen Zakaria
Diapering is a practice done worldwide for centuries. Most cultures have adopted some kind of method of covering the genital area not only for privacy purposes but also for cleanliness and comfort. The latest of methods that have been widely adopted for such swaddling means is the disposable diaper in the mid-to-late twentieth century, but the history of diapers as we understand them to be today was really revolutionized in the early 1800s.
Diapering methods and materials varied widely depending on a particular people’s traditions, culture, and geography. In Europe, babies were swaddled to protect from as well as contain excreta – such diapers consisted of strips of linen or cotton cloths formed into bands that would wrap around the baby both vertically and horizontally. There are also paintings that suggest that swaddling techniques with cloth may have been much more intricate, as a nativity scene paintings show. Some cultures in warmer climates, such as in some regions in Africa, would opt out of swaddling and would instead cover the private areas with a beaded cloth. Some traditions in Asian cultures, such as in China, would dictate that the mother would wait to feel peristaltic movement in her baby before holding it over an open area or container to protect from excreta. Otherwise, young children would have slits already made in their clothing for such purposes. There are documents that show babies born in ancient times that would be swaddled in “milkweed leaf wraps, animal skins, and other natural resources.” Aboriginal practices, in particular, incorporated many natural resources in their diapering methods. The Inuit would place moss in sealskin for absorption, many South American societies such as the Inca would place dried grass in old cloth, and still other groups would use peat moss in animal skin coverings.
In the 1820s in Europe, during the Industrial Revolution, because the working class were able to purchase new furniture pieces, more efforts were made to innovate diapering methods to further contain and keep clean. Squares of cloth, usually linen or cotton flannel, were pinned up around the child’s bottom using safety pins, which had just been invented in the 1880s and were pivotal in leakage prevention and tighter protection around the baby. However, these were dangerous not only because the safety pins could potentially pierce the child, but also because the leakage could potentially transmit infection to the child, “with bacteria, viruses, and fungi.” Dermal infections were a major concern with home diapering methods, as were disposal methods for the diapers – the diapers were infrequently changed, the bins they were disposed of in were incredibly foul-smelling, and the washing of the diapers required very hot water and harsh chemicals that could potentially cause toxic poisoning in the babies as well.
The early 1900s brought about great change to diapering. The fear of bacterial infections and toxic poisoning pushed towards the cleaning of diapers via boiling methods. When women joined the workforce in the wake of the Second World War, there was no time or energy left to hand wash diapers at the end of the day. This led to the development of the diaper laundering services, which refined the cleaning process to “11 wash cycles with detergent, the last four with boiling water alone.” Furthermore, fresh diapers would be “delivered clean and fresh to your door,” bringing greater ease to diapering overall. The mid 1900s saw the development of the first absorbent pad to be used as a diaper in addition to cloth diapers. Inspired by its use as a strategic material during war efforts, the pad was made of creped cellulose tissue of a cotton base that was disposable and had to be changed frequently. While it is unknown who developed the first disposable diaper, Marion Donovan is credited with the initial concept of it. “The Boater,” as it was called, was a waterproof covering for the cloth diapers that had layers of tissue in the center for absorption. Vic Mills of Procter & Gamble, in the 1960s, built on the previous design and developed the disposable cellulose paper core for the diaper, eventually leading to Procter & Gamble launching Pampers shortly after.
While, to this day, the diaper design of the 1960s is relatively unchanged, the late twentieth century and past that saw the rising questions of the environmental-friendly nature of these disposable diapers and its impact on diapering overall. Such concerns saw a great wave of diaper production companies working to reduce non-biodegradable waste, and, subsequently, a decreased dependence on cloth diapers worldwide.
The innovations in diapering, with its focus on hygiene, environmental protection, as well as comfort and privacy, is globally understood as a necessity, regardless of one is wearing it or changing it. However, for many economically challenged families, diapers are still a major financial burden. Inabilities to properly and safely diaper, as seen throughout history, is of major concern given the numerous infections and diseases that can develop due to lack of protection. Diapers can cost up to $100-$125 monthly and, in the United States, even though nearly 30% of parents cannot afford diapers, this expense is not covered by food stamps – putting even further financial strain on families already struggling to spread income thin enough to cover food, shelter, and other related bills.
ICNA Relief is committed to provide educational and organizational resources in an effort to raise funds for mothers and guardians in need of diapers for their children. September is the month of Diaper Awareness, and this year Diaper Awareness Week falls from September 21st to September 27th. Help us close the diaper gap and provide for as many families as possible as a means of ensuring comfort, cleanliness, and care during this month and the upcoming week by hosting diaper drives in your community, making an online donation, or sharing our Amazon Wishlist with your community and loved ones!