Wrapping a disposable diaper around a baby and tossing it in the trash when full is a far cry from the way our great-grandmothers diapered their children. And even though I do a lot of cloth diapering, I know that even my experience is very different from a mother of over a century ago in America.
Because I love history (it’s what I earned my degree in) it seemed like a fun idea to take a trip down memory lane and peek in on the ladies of yesteryear as they cared for their babies’ bottoms! From the Colonial times until the late 1800’s, the task of diapering a baby remained virtually unchanged for American mothers.
Let’s start first with the earliest settlers – the American Indians. Practices varied from tribe to tribe; if the weather permitted, babies might go without pants (and would potty train early). Absorbent materials like moss, grass or weeds might be stuffed around a baby’s bottom before he was wrapped up tightly and strapped onto his mother. When soiled, the materials would be discarded and decompose naturally. In colder climates, natives might use covers made of animal skin.
From the colonial times onward, American mothers made all of their children’s diapers from from fabrics like cotton, muslin, flannel and linen. This was a good project to work on during those nine long months of pregnancy, and a useful way to re-purpose worn-out clothes and linens. Because they were handmade, there was no pre-determined shape; they might be squares, rectangles or triangles and would be fastened on with buttons, sewn-on ties or straight pins (you can still buy diapers with ties today, like these at Little Spruce Organics). Wool covers were sometimes used, but generally babies wore only the diaper and were changed frequently.
Early Colonial women actually had more options than later pioneers. They could purchase yards of special cloth diapering fabric at local shops. It was typically made of imported linen or muslin. Because they were still tied closely to England, Colonial Americans often referred to diapers as “napkins” or “clouts.” Wool covers were called “pilchers.” Interestingly, mothers were encourage back then to have about the same size stash we recommend today – about 2 dozen diapers.
So what happened when baby soaked a diaper? It depends on how close to wash day you were! Mothers usually set aside a day or two each week to tend to the family’s laundry, since water was scarce and the work was taxing. So quite often, mother would simply rinse and ring out the pee diapers and hang them to dry (to use again). Poo diapers were scraped, rinsed and set aside for washing.
The smell of dirty diapers drying by the fireplace wasn’t too pleasant in the winter, but I’m sure the family just accepted it as a necessary reality. And I bet it prompted mothers to encourage early potty-training. Since babies were changed so frequently, this explains why boys wore outfits that look like dresses to the modern eye. It was much easier to change little ones when their outfits were open at the bottom.
Although upper-class women would have had the benefit of housemaids to relieve them of the task of diaper laundry, the process was still virtually the same no matter who was doing it. But it was not uncommon for even a mother of poor or modest means to hire a local girl or woman to help out when a new baby arrived. Famed author Laura Ingalls Wilder did this when Rose was born on the Dakota prairie.
In the 1880’s, diapering started to change. All-cotton cloth diapers were mass-produced and safety pins appeared on the scene. Mothers were encouraged to sanitize diapers by boiling them before re-using.
Detail of image at allposters.com
Diapering got a little bit easier in the 1940’s when Marion Donovan invented the nylon diaper cover; washing machines were also more widely available. Curity introduced cotton prefolds and flats in the 1950’s (Glorimar Rosa has a pristine collection of vintage diapers; she bought some collectible Curity-stamped prefolds from me some years back). But mothers were still doing a lot of washing because diaper fabrics still weren’t as advanced (and absorbent) as they are now. During and after World War II there was not only a shortage of cotton; changing times resulted in an unfortunate flood of women into the workforce. There was less time for housework, and that meant less time for cloth diapers. American mothers were looking for innovation and convenience. Diaper washing services became very popular during this time, and the very first disposable was patented in 1948 by Valerie Gordon.
I guess it’s pretty easy to understand why disposables really took off in the 1950’s. They must have seemed like a dream come true and a real “step forward” for American mothers and babies.
Cloth diapers fell out of favor pretty quickly, but started to make a slow resurgence from the 1980’s onward, thanks to environmental, health and financial concerns. Some of the early innovators hail from Canada; Kushies designed a cotton form-fitted diaper in 1989, Bummis launched one of the first “modern” waterproof diaper covers in 1987, and Motherease followed with its own fitteds and covers beginning in 1991. Brands like Fuzzibunz (who introduced the modern “pocket” diaper in 1999) helped to make cloth more accessible and less daunting to American families. The revolutionary one-size bumGenius, still a perennial top-seller, made its debut in 2006.
More styles followed: All-in-One’s and All-in-Two’s, Hybrids, and Hybrid Fitteds. Cloth diapering wasn’t just a movement it had become a trend! And mothers were making it fun with chat groups, diaper parties, giveaways and clamor for new prints and colors.
Mothers (like me) who cloth diaper today have a much easier time of it. Modern diapers are super absorbent and easy to launder. I don’t deal with issues like boiling and hauling water for wash day (although I do know how to hand wash now, thanks to the encouragement of Kim at Dirty Diaper Laundry). Dirty diaper odors don’t permeate our house, nor am I limited to using only what I can sew or repair.
After doing all this research, I still have a few questions:
- Did early American mothers try to make diapers prettier by dying them or using colored ribbons, buttons, etc?
- Was diaper rash a common problem?
- Where were dirty diapers stored until wash day?
Do you have any questions or comments to share?
Other sources consulted but not cited or linked to:
The Diaper Jungle. The History of Diapers – Disposable and Cloth, http://www.diaperjungle.com/history-of-diapers.html
Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Marion O’Brien Donovan Papers, http://amhistory.si.edu/archives/d8721.htm
The Colonial Williamsburg Official History and Citizenship Site. Fashions of Motherhood, http://www.history.org/history/clothing/women/motherhood.cfm
Wikipedia. Diapers, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaper