The work of individual inventors or small groups of engineers is often the subject of our Evolution of Technology series here on IPWatchdog. Inventions like the digital camera, the ballpoint pen and athletic shoes were accomplished by a single person who chipped away at a problem over time. Often, these inventions were developed at corporate research facilities for large companies such as IBM or Nike. It’s not too often that we get the chance to look at a story about the garage inventor, the mythic stay-at-home innovator whose need to solve a personal problem leads to the development of a product that changes the world.
On May 12th, however, the National Inventors Hall of Fame will be celebrating just such a person into their ranks when they recognize Marion Donovan at their official induction ceremony. Donovan invented a few products that made some everyday life tasks easier, the most important of which is the waterproof diaper cover. Donovan’s dedication to addressing problems posed by parenthood helped to sanitize one of the dirtiest jobs of parenting while helping to make her quite wealthy, a veritable American Dream of inventing. Donovan’s invention presaged the eventual development of disposable diapers, which now represent nine out of every ten diapers used in the developed world. During the course of infancy, a single child will go through about 8,000 diapers.
The Pre-Waterproof Days of Diapering
A historical report on the history of diapering published by nonwoven product industrial group EDANA shows that diapering, which has been a problem experienced throughout human history, was quite primitive until the middle of the 19th century. At that time, cotton was cheaper than ever before thanks to the new forces of industrialization. The safety pin, patented by American inventor William Hunt in April 1849, served as a fastener which enabled a parent to more securely wrap a baby with cotton layers.
There were many shortcomings to the use of cotton fabric in nineteenth century infant diapering practices. Cloth diapers had a tendency to leak, leading to messy cleanups for moms and dads. Wet cloth diapers could also contribute to the development of diaper rash in children, creating a lot of uncomfortable kids and even unhappier parents. Although cloth diapers were fairly cost-effective for many people, there was a fair amount of inequality in the amount of diaper changes that a wealthy family could provide for their children than a poorer family was able.
According to the EDANA report, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office saw dozens of patent applications for diaper inventions between the 1880s and 1930s. These innovations included alternative fastening systems, moisture-proof covers, fitted diaper designs and absorbent inserts. By the 1930s, steps towards creating a disposable diaper that was cost-effective enough to be discarded after use were made by companies in the papermaking and specialized medical fabrics industries; interestingly, the EDANA report makes no mention of Marion Donovan.
Marion Donovan and the Waterproof Diaper
The woman who would go on to create the first diaper was born Marion O’Brien in the city of South Bend, IN, on October 15th, 1917. It should be noted that she was born into a family of inventors; Donovan’s father and his twin brother developed an industrial lathe useful for manufacturing gun barrels. She married James F. Donovan in 1942 and afterwards moved to Westport, CT.
By 1946, Marion already had two children and was getting fed up with the many problems presented by current diapering options. Messy diapers often meant soiled clothing and bed sheets as well. Rubberized options on the market weren’t much better as they could still leak and held a child’s effluvium in place against the body so that most children were incredibly susceptible to developing diaper rash. Donovan set about to create a diaper product that would handle a baby’s mess, keep the surrounding area dry and protect the skin from rashes that could be caused by too much moisture.
The earliest prototype of a diaper with a waterproof cover was constructed from a section of waterproof material cut from a shower curtain. The material was folded multiple times and absorbent layers were added to trap any liquids. Donovan also added snaps to the assembly of this diaper, increasing the ease of securing a diaper greater than the conventional safety pin. Donovan was eventually capable of constructing a diaper that provided ultimate cleanliness along with breathability which she called the Boater.
The patent which will be featured with Marion Donovan’s entry into the National Inventors Hall of Fame was U.S. Patent No. 2556800, which is titled Diaper Wrap. The patent protected a diaper wrap which encloses a diaper extending over a crotch portion of a wearer and up the front and back of the wearer towards the waistline. The outer wall and flaps of the wrap are constructed of a flexible, waterproof material; the outer wall also has concavely curved edges which form the wrap’s side edges. The patent specifically mentions the problems associated with rubber pants for diapering and states that a main object of the invention is to reduce the skin irritation caused by conventional diaper options. The patent was issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark office on June 12th, 1951.
Despite the fact that her design was far superior to other infant care products on the market, Donovan was unable to convince a number of manufacturers that they should license her design. Undaunted, she set about manufacturing and marketing the product by herself. By 1949, a version of the Boater was ready for sale at Saks Fifth Avenue and sold much better than other new products in Saks’ Infant Wear section. The Boater was designed to be reusable; Donovan had suggested a disposable version made entirely of paper but, incredibly, diaper manufacturers weren’t keen on that idea either.
Donovan’s work on the waterproof diaper cover was incredibly remunerative for her. In 1951, she sold the company she had built, Donovan Enterprises, to Keko Corporation, a manufacturer of children’s clothing. Keko bought her company for a sum of $1 million, which would be more than $9 million in today’s money when adjusting for inflation. Donovan would go on to receive an architectural degree from Yale in 1958 and continue her career as an inventor, developing the DentaLoop flossing product which she marketed in the early 1990s.
From Waterproof to Disposable: Diapering As We Know It Today
Even though the EDANA report does not mention Marion Donovan by name, it agrees that the disposable diaper became commercially viable in the late 1940s, so her innovative contributions during those years are well appreciated by the industry. Disposable diapers became quite successful in the years after World War II thanks to population jumps in North America and Western Europe. In Europe, companies like Paulistr?m Bruk developed a disposable diaper from a soft cellulose tissue derived from wood pulp. Over in the United States the first major company to market with a disposable diaper was Chicopee Manufacturing Company, a medical products manufacturer and a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. In 1938, Chicopee introduced CHIX gauze diapers and later developed the CHUX Disposable Diaper, the first one-piece diaper model. Unlike Donovan’s invention, the CHUX diaper did not include a fastening system.
The market dominance of disposable diapers became well established by the 1980s in both Europe and North America. Once they became affordable to most people, parents found disposables to be an incredibly practical solution to the time-consuming problem of diapering. According to the EDANA study, disposables have become even more affordable in recent decades thanks to innovations in leakage control, ease of use and overall diaper performance. Disposables dominated the diaper market by 2008 with a 96 percent market share and, as of 2011, disposables cost about 36 cents per diaper.