A Short History of Diapering in America

I’m a history teacher and a cloth diaper geek. As such, I’ve spent far too much time wondering just how everyone diapered their babies in different eras of American history. In fact, in my research for this piece I came up with several other upcoming post ideas including the history of potty training in America and a brief explanation of how people diaper their children in other cultures. I tried to make this short, but there was too much fascinating information!

Obviously, Native Americans were the first to deal with diapering on the continent and their solutions were environmentally ideal.  In warmer climates, babies went without pants and potty trained early while in colder climates Indigenous people used a disposable diaper that was fully biodegradable—and completely free.  They packed milkweed with peat moss or grasses, or sometimes filled animal skins with similar contents.  The result? A diaper that could be easily left behind to break down into the soil in just a few weeks.

In pioneer days, wet diapers weren’t washed. They were simply hung to dry in front of the fire.  Imagine cooking your family’s meal over the campfire and the mixed odors of stew, wood smoke and dried urine!

Cloth diapering continued for decades without many innovations until mothers started entering the work force in World War II.  Diaper services sprang up around the country to meet their needs. The invention of the washing machine in the early fifties also made cloth diapering far more convenient.

In 1950, Mrs. Hellerman, the owner of a diaper service, invented a pre-folded diaper with extra layers in the center.  The fold was sewn into the diaper and now we have our beloved prefold diapers that are still popular today.

Marion Donovan, a housewife who was desperate for an easier diapering solution, invented the first disposable diaper in the late 1940’s.  She cut her shower curtain into envelopes into which she stuffed conventional cloth diapers and called them “Boaters.”  The cover closed with plastic snaps, eliminating the need for diaper pins.  No manufacturer would support her, so she sold her product directly to department stores.  Eventually she converted the design to thick absorbent paper and the disposable diaper was born. She later sold her company for one million dollars.

The sixties took disposable diapers into the mainstream, a movement which continued into the seventies as women continued to move into careers outside the home.

Just two decades ago, cloth started making a comeback as parents started to question the environmental impact of disposable diapers.  Plus, with innovative new features like Velcro and snap closures, pocket diaper inserts, and various diaper liners, cloth diapering became more convenient and appealing than ever before.  Other greener options such as hybrid diapers with disposable inserts and compostable diapers also hit the market.

Although disposables have only really been around for fifty years, many scientists believe that they’ll take up to 500 years to decompose.  That means that those first diapers invented by Marion Donovan won’t have broken down by the end of your great, great granchildren’s lives.  On a happier note, who knows what kind of crazy innovations we’ll have made in natural diapering by then.  Perhaps we’ll be using a newfangled product made of milkweed and stuffed with peat moss—and finding the best combination of convenience and conservation.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the history of potty training in America!


  1. Disposables were available during WWII – my mom told stories of having to take the train during the war with my brother (born in ’41) and using really awful disposable diapers while traveling because she just couldn’t deal with a trainsick baby AND storing used diapers.

  2. What a neat article! As a complete cloth fanatic myself, I’ve often wondered about diapering through the ages. I would absolutely love to read anything else you write about this subject. Thanks for posting! And thanks to The Cloth Diaper Whisperer for sharing.

  3. I saw an animal skin diaper cover at the Smithsonian this summer. It was made by a people in Alaska.

  4. Nancy,
    Of course my favorite part of history is personal anecdotes, so I love hearing your mom’s story! There was a Swedish disposable diaper available as early as 1942 that was made from tissue pads made from cellulose that was held in rubber pants. It wasn’t all that effective and they weren’t able to make it out of cotton because of war shortages. I wonder if that’s what your mom used!

  5. Joy,
    May I repost this in it’s entirety (with credit to you and MANY links back here to your blog) on my own blog? http://secretmommy.blogspot.com In fact, I’d love to post the entire “series” including the potty training and any others. GREAT information and so interesting for those of us who are geeky about history AND cloth diapering. 🙂 Thanks. 🙂

  6. Really interesting read. Came across your post while doing research for my own series on ecologically responsible diapering. Looking forward to the next installation in the series.

  7. I just posted a short history of potty training based on Diaper Free Before 3 here:

    Thanks for this interesting history of diapering which I’m sure I’ll be linking to soon.

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