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 my experience is very different from a mother of two centuries ago in America.
Because I love history (my major in college) 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.
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 in a cradleboard. When soiled, the materials would be discarded and decompose naturally. Herbs and plants that were beneficial to the skin included sphagnum moss, juniper bark and clifforse.
In colder climates, natives might use covers made of animal skin. Take a look at these sealskin Eskimo baby pants, complete with ties!
From the Colonial times until the late 1800’s, the task of diapering a baby remained virtually unchanged for American mothers. Mothers made all of their children’s diapers 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.
Diaper rash would be treated with burnt flour or powdered vegetable sulfur.
Trade was brisk in the colonies, affording women several options. 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 referred to diapers as napkins or clouts. Wool covers were called pilchers. You can see a napkin and pilch on a doll here. Interestingly, mothers were encouraged back then to have about the same size stash we recommend today – about 2 dozen diapers.
The Laundress by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1761)
Pioneer mothers from the 1800’s onward typically didn’t have as many choices, unless they brought a fancy layette with them from back East.
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 wet diapers and hang them to dry; sometimes they were used again.
Although it offends modern sensibilities (and noses), urine was thought to be useful as both a disinfectant and stain remover (thanks to the ammonia). Our ancestors felt no sense of urgency about laundering a wet diaper. 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’m pretty sure it prompted mothers to encourage early potty-training! Young children, no matter their gender, wore gowns that opened at the bottom for frequent, easy changes.
Soiled diapers would be scraped, rinsed and set aside for washing.
Getting any type of laundry clean in the old days was a chore. After heating large amounts of water (on a stove or open fire) that had to be lugged from a well or spring in big buckets, clothes were sorted into piles. Then the long process of scrubbing and rinsing commenced, and lye soap was not kind to your hands.
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.
An understanding husband could help with the washing, too, in a pinch!
Ben Leeson and his wife, circa 1901, source unknown
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, used with permission
Diapering got another welcome boost 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 that you can view).
But one thing hadn’t changed. 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. Consequently, it was during and after the war that diaper washing services and disposables hit the scene in a big way.
PauliStróm in Sweden invented the first throwaway, made of paper, in 1942. More innovation quickly followed, with Valerie Gordon’s “Paddi” (1947) and Marion Donovan’s “Boater” (1949).
Disposables had three major selling points: convenience, absorbency, and a lower incidence of diaper rash.
Pampers Ad, circa 1967, courtesy of FirstVersions.com
Cloth diapers predictably fell out of favor, 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 was a trend. And mothers were making it fun (and social) with chat groups, diaper parties, giveaways, and a regular 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.
But after doing all this research, I still have a few unanswered 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?
Let me know if YOU know the answers!
Other sources consulted but not cited or linked to:
All photos are either in the public domain or are used with permission.
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