The Evolution of Diapers

Human beings have been giving birth to babies from the beginning of time, which is how the world currently supports a population of 8 billion people. Today, parents have access to an unlimited range of highly absorbent and disposable diapers. Anything close to the modern diapers or ‘pampers’ was not invented until 1942. Have you ever wondered how mothers or fathers dealt with their child’s mess during ancient times? If you think changing a diaper with the current facilities is hard work, imagine what it was like back then!

In the medieval ages, parents had to be creative with what little they had. Research and prehistoric artifacts suggest that Milkweed leaf wraps, and animal skins were two natural resources used by Homo sapiens to cover themselves. None of these materials can be deemed waterproof or absorbent, but it was the best humankind could come up with at the time. Later, the Eskimo clan invented the sealskin pants, which excelled in durability and were somewhat leak proof. One thing is clear that the concept of ‘disposability’ was rare, if not nonexistent; perhaps leaves could be discarded after a single use, but the same cannot be said about pelts. Hunting wild animals for their hides and meat must have been a tough job.

As humankind progressed, parents thought of ways that would alleviate the issues of leaking and reeking. They started stuffing their child’s underpants with moss, grass, or wood shavings; I quiver at the thought of how uncomfortable that must have been for the little toddlers. It was not until the 18th century that estate planning and cloth diapers became a thing. While the well-off families made diapers out of cotton, linen, and stockinet pieces, the poor cut out used flour rags to create diapers, cleaning rags, and various other clothing items. Fabrics were cut into rectangles and fastened by safety pins on the sides.

Following the World War 2, a large number of women started working in factories due to shortage of men. This was the time when reusable cloth diapers became a nuisance; women simply did not have time for all the cleaning and washing involved. Soon after, a commercial service of picking up dirty diapers and delivering fresh folded ones emerged. In 1942, ‘rubber pants’ were introduced as the innovative diapers that solved the seepage problem. However, the idea wasn’t as successful as the creators hoped, as the material caused rashes and other skin problems to the babies.

In 1946, an ingenious woman named Marion Donovan invented the first reliable leak-proof diaper. The saying goes true that need is the mother of invention. She was sick of washing her daughter’s diaper, clothes, and sheets multiple times a day. One day she grabbed her shower curtain and sewed a diaper cover out of the impermeable material (nylon/parachute). A company bought the rights to her idea for a million dollars and the diaper turned into a massive sigh of relief for mothers worldwide. Shortly, diaper manufacturers made modifications to Marion’s design and came up with cheaper alternatives. The disposable plastic diapers originated and are being used to date.

SAP (super absorbent polymer) was discovered in 1966, but diaper manufacturers did not employ it until 1986. SAP is a gel like substance that can absorb water up to 500 times its weight. The tremendous absorbent capacity and low volume made it ideal for babies and the environment. Biodegradable forms of SAP have been produced and they are 100% safe to use.

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