Ask nine out of 10 parents in the childcare aisle of a modern supermarket, who invented the disposable nappy (or diaper), and chances are, they will give the same answer: Pampers? But although it was Pampers-producer Procter & Gamble who patented the modern nappy – launching it to the world with great aplomb in 1961 – the original designer was, in fact, Marion Donovan, a mother from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
When Donovan first picked up the challenge in 1946, the cloth nappy, made of heavy fabric that needed to be secured with safety pins, had already been in mass production since the late 1800s. Its drawbacks were obvious to any mother of the time: it wasn’t waterproof and was burdensome to wash and dry between use.
Deciding to take action, Donovan set about designing a waterproof version that could not only reduce leakage but also be mass-produced. The result was a waterproof nappy known as the ‘boater’, which was launched to instant success in New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue store in 1949. Fashioned by Donovan out of a series of cut-up shower curtains, shaped into plastic ‘envelopes’, and stuffed with absorbent paper, the reusable leakproof diaper took its name from one exciting innovation: it helped babies to ‘stay afloat’ by reducing leakage.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Her attempt at a completely ’disposable’ paper nappy (rather than a waterproof one which needed washing) was laughed out of offices throughout New York. Choosing to drop the design and concentrate on her original waterproof product instead, Donovan patented and mass-produced the ‘boater’ in 1951 – later selling both the company and the patent to the children’s clothing manufacturer Keko corporation for US$1 million.
It was another 10 years before Vic Mills of Procter & Gamble picked up Donovan’s (unpatented) disposable paper design and developed it into the first fully-disposable nappy. Once their improvements were patented, the company launched the affordable modern disposable nappy in 1961, later releasing it to an international audience in the early 1970s.
Today’s disposable nappies – tailored for age, shaped for boys or girls, easy to affix, superabsorbent, leakproof and comfortable thanks to elastic leg holes and waists – are a far cry from Procter & Gamble’s early designs: back then the nappies were thick and unwieldy, were only 90% leak-proof, and needed to be secured by strong sticky tape if they were to work (the lateral fastenings were added much later in the 1970s). Competition between Procter & Gamble and Kimberley-Clark (the producers of Huggies), however, ensured numerous innovations, as manufacturers sought to improve on their nappy designs and reduce their pricing almost as soon as they had hit the supermarket shelf.
But cloth nappies have also come a long way since the original squares with safety pins. Cost issues and environmental awareness have taken their toll on nappy sales with many new parents and environmental campaigning bodies currently promoting a switch back to cotton from disposable nappies, which cannot be recycled. Disposable producers, however, are already rising to meet the challenge, and with the first biodegradable versions already in our shops, it looks as if a new revolution for the disposable diaper is on its way.