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The History of the Diaper

(Reprinted with permission from Diapers Unlimited, Cotton Diaper Service, Kalamazoo, MI)

Image: First Nation mothers once collected the soft insides of milkweed to pack around their babies before strapping them into a papoose board.

First Nation mothers once collected the soft insides of milkweed to pack around their babies before strapping them into a papoose board. Eskimo moms gathered moss during the short summer months and placed it inside the animal skins in which they carried their babies.

Over the years, mothers have relied on a variety of methods to diaper their babies. From prairie plants to plastic-covered paper to all-natural cotton, busy moms have tried to balance what's best for their baby with what's convenient for them.


It's hard to believe, but in Elizabethan times, babies were treated to a fresh diaper every four days! Little sons and daughters of royalty were more fortunate - and changed once a day. The diapers themselves were squares of cloth held on with string tied around the baby's stomach.

Image: It's hard to believe, but in Elizabethan times, babies were treated to a fresh diaper every four days

When the pioneers pushed westward in covered wagons, mothers made all their children's diapers, carefully rolling and hand-stitching the edges. Wet diapers were seldom washed, just hung by the fireplace to dry.

The first all-cotton diapers were made in America. A 21 by 40-inch rectangle was folded and tucked and pinned. Mothers might buy six to seven dozen diapers to keep up with their baby.


Diaper services grew all over the country during World War II. Many mothers were working in defense plants making airplanes, tanks and submarines instead of washing diapers at home.

Back in the 1940's, fresh cotton diapers were delivered wrapped in blue paper. In the evening, the family gathered around the radio to listen to the news and Fibber McGee - and fold diapers.


During the Eisenhower era (1950's), there was another big change in the diaper. Mrs. Hellerman - owner of a diaper service in Milwaukee - went to the Kendall Company, which made Curity® brand diapers, with a new invention. It was a fold that put extra cotton layers in the centre of the diaper and made it about the right size for most babies. The fold was sewn shut, and the prefolded diaper was born. No more family folding parties!

A few years later, Kendall Company began making the prefolded diaper in a smaller size especially for diaper services. They fit newborns from a premie to a baby 10 pounds.


In the 60's, use it and toss it and heat and eat sold a lot of new products. Plastic was pop and mod. Plastic-covered paper diapers were a big hit. As the years went on, reusable tab closures and gathered legs were added to the diapers.

One of the most recent technologies is the addition of acrylic acid polymer salts, a chemical that turns to gel when wet, to absorb moisture.

Image: Changing Diapers - The Hip Moms Guide to Modern Cloth Diapering, by Kelly Wels. Publisher: Green Team Enterprises; First edition (October 1, 2011)

Changing Diapers - The Hip Mom's Guide to Modern Cloth Diapering
Click for more info: US | CA | UK


Today, health experts and overflowing landfills have created new priorities for parents to consider. Like the pesticides whose problems are now believed to outweigh the benefits, the convenience of disposable diapers is getting another look.

Buried in a landfill, all the disposables disposed of will be around for the next 500 years.

At its 1990 meeting, The American Public Health Association adopted a resolution on disposable single-use diapers. The resolution discusses landfills, risks to sanitation workers and groundwater, and the fact that many parents have simply not noticed the warnings on the package instructing them to empty and rinse the diaper in the toilet and separate the plastic.

APHA's Executive Director stated, APHA believes that the reliance on disposable diapers . . . poses potential and unwarranted health and environmental risks.


Environmental issues are one reason why hospitals are taking another look at all-natural cotton diapers. But what's really convincing hospitals to switch back to cotton is its softness, and the ability of accredited diaper services to surpass hospital standards of cleanliness.

Image: Diaper Changes - The Complete Diapering Book and Resource Guide, by Theresa Rodriguez Farrisi. Publisher: M. Evans and Company; 3 edition (October 6, 2003)

Diaper Changes: The Complete Diapering Book and Resource Guide
Click for more info: US | CDN | UK


And today's diaper services offer convenience to parents too.

Clean cotton diapers are delivered to the home every week. At the same time, soiled diapers which have been placed in a special deodorizing hamper after use, are whisked away to be washed with environmentally friendly products, including a bacteriostat that helps prevent odour.

Most diaper services offer waterproof diaper covers which simply wrap over diapers and close with tabs, no pins needed. The convenience of diaper services has created a viable alternative to the disposable.

Now why would Born to Love be recommending a diaper service?!?

Yes, we know the cost is at least two times that of washing your own diapers - but your time is really precious in those early weeks. Spend your time recovering, establishing a good milk supply... Enjoying and getting to know your new baby... This time passes so-o quickly and we don't want you to have to spend it washing diapers!

So do yourself a favour . . . without adding to our growing landfill and environmental problems.


This article compliments of Born to Love.


The Diaper Facts column:

How Do I Get Started With Cloth Diapering?
Cloth Diapering With A Diaper Service
How Do I Wash Cloth Diapers?
Expensive to Wash Cloth Diapers?
The STINK on Stinky Diapers
Why are my cloth diapers and covers stinky?
Here's my Stinky Diaper Solution!
Why are my cloth diapers and/or diaper covers leaking?!?
How Do I Make My Diaper Covers Last?

Other articles that might be of interest:

How to Choose the Perfect Cloth Diapering System
Feeling Confused About Your Cloth Diapering Decision?
Diapering Expert Shares Secrets!
Do Cloth Diapers Seem Too Expensive?
Frugal Diaper Washing
Frugal Diapering
Frugal Baby Tips: Make Your Own Baby Bum Sweaters!
Your Choice Does Make a Difference!
What's Wrong With 'Disposable' Single-Use Diapers?
Environmental Concerns - What Do They Mean For You and Your Baby?
Environmental Concerns II - Looking at Both Sides of the Issue


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Last updated - February 8, 2017