History of a Diaper

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crop unrecognizable mother holding hands of newborn baby on bed
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A diaper (American and Canadian English) or a nappy (Australian English, British English, and Hiberno-English) is a type of underwear that allows the wearer to urinate or defecate without using a toilet, by absorbing or containing waste products to prevent soiling of outer clothing or the external environment. When diapers become wet or soiled, they require changing, generally by a second person such as a parent or caregiver. Failure to change a diaper on a sufficiently regular basis can result in skin problems around the area covered by the diaper.

Diapers are made of cloth or synthetic disposable materials. Cloth diapers are composed of layers of fabric such as cotton, hemp, bamboo, microfiber, or even plastic fibers such as PLA or PU, and can be washed and reused multiple times. Disposable diapers contain absorbent chemicals and are thrown away after use.

The Middle English word diaper originally referred to a type of cloth rather than the use thereof; “diaper” was the term for a pattern of repeated, rhombic shapes, and later came to describe white cotton or linen fabric with this pattern. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is a piece of soft cloth or other thick material that is folded around a baby’s bottom and between its legs to absorb and hold its body waste.

The first cloth diapers consisted of a specific type of soft tissue sheet, cut into geometric shapes. This type of pattern was called diapering and eventually gave its name to the cloth used to make diapers and then to the diaper itself, which was traced back to 1590s England.

This usage stuck in the United States and Canada following the British colonization of North America, but in the United Kingdom the word “nappy” took its place. Most sources believe nappy is a diminutive form of the word napkin, which itself was originally a diminutive

Diaper – History

In the 19th century, the modern diaper began to take shape and mothers in many parts of the world used cotton material, held in place with a fastening—eventually the safety pin. Cloth diapers in the United States were first mass-produced in 1887 by Maria Allen. In the UK, nappies were made out of terry towelling, often with an inner lining made out of soft muslin.

Here is an extract from ‘The Modern Home Doctor’ written by physicians in the UK in 1935.

Nice old, soft bits of good Turkish towelling, properly washed, will make the softest of diaper coverings, inside which specially absorbent napkins (diapers), see below at 1A, soft, light, and easily washed, are contained. These should rarely be soiled once regular habits have been inculcated, especially during the night period in which it is most important to prevent habit formation
1A -(squares of butter muslin or Harrington’s packed rolls of “mutton cloth” in packets, sold for polishing motor-cars, would do equally well and are very cheap and soft)

Wool pants, or, once available, rubber pants, were sometimes used over the cloth diaper to prevent leakage. Doctors believed that rubber pants were harmful because they thought the rubber acted as a poultice and damaged the skin of infants.

The constant problem to be overcome was diaper rash, and the infection thereof. The concern was that lack of air circulation would worsen this condition. While lack of air circulation is a factor, it was later found that poor hygiene involving inefficiently washed diapers and infrequent changes of diapers, along with allowing the baby to lie for prolonged periods of time with fecal matter in contact with the skin, were the two main causes of these problems.

In the 20th century, the disposable diaper was conceived. In the 1930s, Robinsons of Chesterfield had what were labeled “Destroyable Babies Napkins” listed in their catalogue for the wholesale market. In 1944, Hugo Drangel of the Swedish paper company Pauliström suggested a conceptual design which would entail the placing of sheets of paper tissue (cellulose wadding) inside the cloth diaper and rubber pants. However, cellulose wadding was rough against the skin and crumbled into balls when exposed to moisture.

In 1946, Marion Donovan used a shower curtain from her bathroom to create the “Boater”, a diaper cover made from army surplus nylon parachute cloth. First sold in 1949 at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store in New York City, patents were later issued in 1951 to Donovan, who later sold the rights to the waterproof diaper for $1 million.

Donovan also designed a paper disposable diaper, but was unsuccessful in marketing it. In 1947, Scottish housewife Valerie Hunter Gordon started developing and making Paddi, a 2-part system consisting of a disposable pad (made of cellulose wadding covered with cotton wool) worn inside an adjustable plastic garment with press-studs/snaps. Initially, she used old parachutes for the garment. She applied for the patent in April 1948, and it was granted for the UK in October 1949. Initially, the big manufacturers were unable to see the commercial possibilities of disposable nappies.

In 1948, Gordon made over 400 Paddis herself using her sewing machine at the kitchen table. Her husband had unsuccessfully approached several companies for help until he had a chance meeting with Sir Robert Robinson at a business dinner. In November 1949 Valerie Gordon signed a contract with Robinsons of Chesterfield who then went into full production. In 1950, Boots UK agreed to sell Paddi in all their branches. In 1951 the Paddi patent was granted for the US and worldwide. Shortly after that, Playtex and several other large international companies tried unsuccessfully to buy out Paddi from Robinsons. Paddi was very successful for many years until the advent of ‘all in one’ diapers.

In Sweden, Hugo Drangel’s daughter Lil Karhola Wettergren, in 1956 elaborated her father’s original idea, by adding a garment (again making a 2-part system like Paddi). However she met the same problem, with the purchasing managers, declaring they would never allow their wives to “put paper on their children.”

After the Second World War, mothers increasingly wanted freedom from washing diapers so that they could work and travel, causing an increasing demand for disposable diapers.

During the 1950s, companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Kendall, Parke-Davis, Playtex, and Molnlycke entered the disposable diaper market, and in 1956, Procter & Gamble began researching disposable diapers. Victor Mills, along with his project group including William Dehaas (both men who worked for the company) invented what would be trademarked “Pampers”. Although Pampers were conceptualized in 1959, the diapers themselves were not launched into the market until 1961. Pampers now accounts for more than $10 billion in annual revenue at Procter & Gamble.

Over the next few decades, the disposable diaper industry boomed and the competition between Procter & Gamble’s Pampers and Kimberly Clark’s Huggies resulted in lower prices and drastic changes to diaper design. Several improvements were made, such as the use of double gussets to improve diaper fit and containment. As stated in Procter & Gamble’s initial 1973 patent for the use of double gussets in a diaper, “The double gusset folded areas tend to readily conform to the thigh portions of the leg of the infant. This allows quick and easy fitting and provides a snug and comfortable diaper fit that will neither bind nor wad on the infant…as a result of this snugger fit obtained because of this fold configuration, the diaper is less likely to leak or, in other words, its containment characteristics are greatly enhanced.”

Further developments in diaper design were made, such as the introduction of refastenable tapes, the “hourglass shape” so as to reduce bulk at the crotch area, and the 1984 introduction of super-absorbent material from polymers known as sodium polyacrylate that were originally developed in 1966

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