Babies are incredible waste producing-machines, speeding through approximately 10 nappies every day. If you are in possession of a poop-maker, you’ve got options for dealing with their impressive output: disposables, cloth, something called FuzziBunz.
Your cornucopia of nappy options is all thanks to a single design that transformed the industry 70 years ago.
Marion Donovan was living in Westport, Connecticut, and she was doing laundry constantly. At the time, she had two young, not-yet-potty-trained daughters, and the only option for keeping them dry was cloth. It was a leaky mess that not only required constant nappy changes, but clothing and bed sheets had to be swapped out, too. One exasperated evening, Donovan decided she could build a better nappy.
The problem was the liquid didn’t stay in the nappy. Cloth absorbs moisture, but it also releases liquid when pressed. That meant whatever leaked out ended up on clothes, sheets and the carpet. Rubber baby pants were one attempt to solve the problem, but they introduced a bunch of others: They pinched poor babies’ legs and stomach, caused nappy rash, and cut off ventilation to an area that really needs it.
Donovan’s initial prototype incorporated an item already proven to block water: a shower curtain. She took down the one hanging in her bathroom, cut out a section, and sewed it into diaper cover design she hoped wouldn’t leak and wouldn’t cause diaper rash. She tweaked the design until she was confident she had something that would change the lives of the nappy-changing masses. The only problem was no one wanted it.
The companies Donovan approached told her the consumers hadn’t asked for such a product, so they didn’t want to manufacture it. Donovan ignored what consumers thought they wanted (practising a Steve Jobs-ism before he was even born) and manufactured “The Boater” herself.
Her design made several improvements on the classic setup. She folded flexible nylon around the cloth, so the moisture-absorbing material was exposed to the baby in just the right places (think of the nylon like a flattened and flexible rowboat shell with fabric and the liquid held securely on the inside). When the cloth was soaked, liquid sunk against the nylon, which, with its edges turned in, kept the moisture from the baby’s skin and away from clothes and bed sheets. The nylon was also breathable, so sensitive skin didn’t get swampy.
It turns out Donovan did know what consumers wanted. The Boater was a hit. In 1949, the president of Saks Fifth Avenue wrote her saying how infrequent “a new innovation in the Infants’ Wear field goes over with the immediate success of your Boaters”. Donovan had created the precursor to disposables.
By the time her patent was granted for the nylon-wrapped poop-catcher two years later, she was already on to the next thing: a paper nappy that could be tossed away after one use. Although she ultimately landed upon a design with a paper absorbent enough, it would be nearly a decade before disposable diapers gained traction.
Sadly that didn’t happen with Donovan’s invention, but rather when chemical engineer Victor Mills launched Pampers in the 1960s. Since then, the field has constantly evolved, with nappies getting thinner and more absorbent by the minute. By the ’80s, nappies came filled with super absorbent polymers engineered to hold lots of liquid.
While the design has changed radically, the volume of baby-produced waste stays the same. By age 2.5, one baby will mess some 3800 disposable nappies. Another thing that will never change: despite decades of design improvements, every baby finds a way to outsmart a nappy.