The Fascinating History of Cloth to Disposable Diapers

I can’t remember the last time I have so thoroughly enjoyed a Google rabbit trail.  What started out as a simple search morphed into learning about the history of modern cloth diapers and the development of disposable diapers.

Since the creation of man there has been a need for diapers.  Of course they weren’t always fabric.  Historical writings and drawings inform us that milkweed leaf, animal skins, grass and many other creative uses were employed to “diaper” a baby.

Did you know that cloth diapers were first mass produced by Maria Allen in 1887?

By the late 1800?s infants in Europe and North America were wearing the progenitor of the modern diaper. A square or rectangle of linen, cotton flannel, or stockinet was folded into a rectangular shape and held in place with safety pins. “Diaper” was originally the term for an overall pattern of small repeated geometric shapes, and then a white cotton or linen fabric with such a pattern. So the first babies’ diapers were made from diaper fabric, meaning fabric with a repetitive pattern. The first mass made cloth diapers were introduced by Maria Allen in 1887 in the United States. original post

Discovering the origination of a word may be geeky to some but completely makes me happy.

During WWII,  women flocked to work in factories to fill in the major vacancies caused by men going to war.  With mothers away at work their time to hand wash diapers became severely cramped.  In comes the diaper service to the rescue.

The diaper service, then as now, delivered fresh prefold diapers and picked up the soiled ones.

Around this time is when the first mentions of a disposable diaper surfaced.

The first disposable absorbent pad used as a diaper was probably the one made from unbleached creped cellulose tissue (held in rubber pants) in 1942 by Paulistróm in Sweden, perhaps because cotton had become a strategic material due to the war. original post

In 1946, the first waterproof cover was introduced.  Sure the Inuits were the first to use a true waterproof cover by stuffing moss under sealskin but how practical is that??  It was Marion Donovan’s frustration with wet sheets that led her to take the shower curtain down and create a diaper cover.  She then added snaps, wrapped it around the diaper and voila! Modernization hits the cloth diaper market.

Late one night in 1946, a very tired mother was faced with a wet, crying baby yet again. Changing her second daughter’s soaked cloth diaper, clothing, and bed sheets, Marion O’Brien Donovan knew there had to be a better way to keep babies dry. Soon after, she tore down the shower curtain hanging in her bathroom, cut out a section, and sat down at her sewing machine, determined to create a diaper cover that would prevent leaks. That first shower-curtain experiment eventually led to the creation of a reusable diaper cover made from nylon parachute cloth–and a collective sigh of relief from women across the United States. original post

Learning about Marion Donovan has been so engrossing.  In 1999, a Lemelson Center archivist learned about the existence of Donovan’s notes, drawings, advertisements, articles and more.  The archivist then traveled to NY and had the opportunity to dig through 2 storage rooms of information in Donovan’s former apartment.  Ahh! Sounds like so much fun.

“Marion Donovan displays a package of Boaters in 1951, on the day she sold the rights to her diaper cover invention to Keko Corporation for $1 million.”

This photo is brought to you courtesy of the NMAH Archives Center of the Smithsonian Institute.

I could go on and on about Donovan but I’ll let you read up on her in the above links.

Over the next few decades small changes were introduced to the disposable diaper design and big names (P&G for one) entered the market.  However, it wasn’t until the 80’s that the 2 big disposable diaper design features, the “tape” and super-absorber gel, were introduced.

We can thank (or not) Billy Gene Harper and Carlyle Harmon for their discover of SAP (super absorbent polymer) in 1966. SAP finally made its way into U.S. disposable diapers in 1986.  (Check out the Diaper Evolution Timeline for more diaper developments.)

In 2000, Absormex, a Mexican company, released the very first bio-degradable diaper in the world.

As disposable diapers were developing from nothing to a bazillion dollar industry, cloth diapers were becoming more and more functional and convenient.

The last 3 decades have seen a huge boom in the cloth diaper industry.  In the 80’s, selection was small and, shocking as it is to imagine, available through mail-order catalogs or department stores.

We now live in a time where you can choose between 500 different colors, prints and styles of cloth diapers.  You can choose diapers made in the USA at the table of a wahm or $5 diapers from a Chinese factory. You want organic?  You can have it.  You want PUL and microfiber?  You got it.  You want rainbows and unicorn hair?  Sure, it’s yours!

It’s a good time to cloth diaper your baby.  No matter what cloth diaper style you go with you are helping the overfull landfills, providing a healthier option for your baby and even if you buy $25 diapers you are saving money!

There are so many more interesting facts about diaper development over the decades.  Please check out the links for more details.

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About Autumn Beck

Autumn is a wife, mother, homeschool teacher, friend and most important a follower of Christ. She began cloth diapering in 2005 and has experienced many joys and trials throughout the years. You can read more from Autumn over at

View all posts by Autumn Beck

10 Responses to “The Fascinating History of Cloth to Disposable Diapers”

  1. katie Says:

    I think it’s crazy what cloth diapers are now. I think the varieties that are available now make it easier for people to want to start using them because you can choose what type or see if one style is easier for you or not.


  2. Heather Says:

    Very interesting! I was talking to my grandma last time she visited and she was telling me about using cloth diapers. She talked about having to change the babies right as soon as they wet. She didn’t like using covers since it was so thick and didn’t breathe. And line drying was the only option. Not good if it rained!!!


  3. Jessica M J Says:

    Love history like this, I always grill my grandparents about what it was like. My mom doesn’t remember her siblings being diapered except for diapers hanging on the line. She said it was a private thing, not like today where I change my daughter on the living room floor.


  4. Carol Says:

    This is so interesting to hear about the history of cloth diapers diapers. Pretty interesting!


  5. Cory Young Says:

    My grandmother worked for a diaper service for years. Back then diapers were all made of white flannel, they were all held on with diaper pins and everyone used plastic pants. Even after she retired, the diaper truck came to her house and left diapers to be mended.
    The new cloth diapers seem a lot more expensive in comparison. Buying the
    diapers, inserts, p.u.l. and liners. Especially if parents have to buy more than one size.


    • Steph Says:

      You can get sized diapers that fit a certain weight range (similar to sizing on disposable diapers) or you can get adjustable diapers that will fit a range of sizes, up to the time they are potty trained. I spent probably a total of $250-300 on my cloth diapers, and they fit my son the entire time he was in diapers (after preemie and newborn size disposables). Plus most diapers come with inserts. You can always buy extras but it isn’t a necessary expense.


  6. hayley s Says:

    Woo! That’s awesome! That sounds like some fun research!! Thanks for the article! :)


  7. Carrie C Says:

    Great post! I love how the first cover was made from a shower curtain! Show how creative we can be when we are desperate!


  8. Lisa Says:

    Wow!!! Awesome post and research, Autumn! Thanks for sharing! I felt the trials that moms through the ages would feel… because I never really thought about what moms diapering their kids 60 or 100 years ago must have gone through. I love history and I love research rabbit trails. Fabulous and interesting. Thanks!


  9. Laurie Says:

    Fascinating! Thank you for sharing!


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