For as long as there have been babies, there has been mess; but how parents have contended with that mess has changed over time and varied from culture to culture. Some Native American tribes packed grass under rabbit skins to contain their infants' waste. Inuits placed moss under sealskin. In Japan during the Edo era (1603–1868), farmers used an ejiko, a wooden bassinet layered with absorbent materials topped by a mattress with a hole cut out for the baby's buttocks. Urine was collected by the lower layers of ash, rags, and straw, and the baby stayed dry while the parents worked. In many warm places, even today, toddlers simply go naked below the waist or, as in China, have pants with a hole cut out of the bottom.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, babies were swaddled in long, narrow bands of linen, hemp, or wool. The groin was sometimes left unwrapped so that absorbent "buttock clothes" of flannel or linen could be tucked underneath. Often in warm weather SWADDLING bands were removed and children were left unclothed or swaddled only on top. After about a year, babies wore small dresses or blouses that fell to the ground with nothing underneath. A handful of ashes was thrown over the infant's excrement which allowed it to be easily swept away.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, babies were infrequently bathed or changed. When swaddling clothes were removed to attend to babies' waste, the infants' bottoms were usually just wiped without soap or water and then powdered with absorbent worm-eaten wood dust. Urine-soaked swaddling clothes were dried in front of the fire without being washed and then used again. Urine was believed to have disinfecting properties and filth was often considered protective for infants. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that doctors began to recommend that cloths used as diapers be changed promptly.
In the mid-eighteenth century, philosophers such as JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU criticized swaddling as unhealthful. These criticisms altered the behavior of European urbanites and the wealthy but had little effect on the practices of the rural poor. English children were not commonly swaddled but dressed in diapers, underpants, and long woolen dresses with swaddling bands only around their abdomens. Swaddling cloth of oiled silk was developed in the eighteenth century in an attempt to prevent leaks.
A great advance in diapering was the invention of the safety pin, patented by Walter Hunt in 1849, but not widely used in place of the straight pin for securing diapers until the 1880s. By the late 1800s, infants in Europe and North America were wearing garments similar to the modern cloth diaper. A square of linen or cotton flannel was folded into a triangular or rectangular shape and held in place by safety pins. The diaper was covered with an absorbent pant called a "soaker" or "pilch," made of tightly knitted wool. In the late 1890s, rubberized pants were sometimes used to cover diapers. Diaper rash in the nineteenth century was commonly remedied with burnt flour or powdered vegetable sulfur.
One of the most common responses to the difficulties of diapering has been to toilet train early. At the end of the seventeenth century JOHN LOCKE recommended putting babies on a "pierced chair"–a chair with a hole in the bottom under which a chamber pot could be placed. Some of these chairs had a space for a hot brick to help keep infants warm for the time, sometimes considerable, in which they were strapped to the chair while their mothers waited for them to "produce." Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, parenting manuals commonly recommended that TOILET TRAINING begin almost immediately after birth. Some manuals promised mothers that diapers could be dispensed with altogether within three or four months. After the 1940s, the idea of insistent early toilet training began to give way to the notion that the child should be the guide in toilet training. The child-guided process recommended putting off toilet training until the child was considerably older, meaning at least an additional five thousand diaper changes per child, according to one scholar's estimate.
Changing and cleaning diapers could be very laborious. Beginning in the twentieth century, mothers were encouraged by doctors and other child-rearing experts to wash diapers with soap and water and, by the 1930s, diapers were washed and then sterilized with a hot iron or boiled. Commercial diaper laundering services appeared in the United States in the 1930s. Cloth diapers were overlaid with a highly absorbent muslin, oilcloth, or gauze, or, in Great Britain, underpants made of sterilized latex. The Maternity Center Association, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving maternity care, advised parents that they could use "stork pants" with tightly gathered legs when they went visiting, but they were discouraged from using these regularly since they could irritate the baby's skin. In 1946 Marion Donovan invented a waterproof diaper cover made of a nylon parachute cloth that was reusable, leak-proof, and closed with snaps. She called it the "Boater" and when it debuted at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949 it was an immediate success.
Some form of one-use diapers appeared as early as the 1890s, but they were not widely available (and affordable) until the 1960s. The modern disposable diaper was developed by Victor Mills and launched in 1961 under the brand name Pampers. Pampers were an immediate success, even though they initially came in only two sizes, had no tapes, and were quite bulky. Competition for the disposable diaper market soon took off and remedied these flaws. Some doctors worried that disposable diapers would adversely affect infants' development because of the bulk between the legs, but this fear was assuaged by hourglass-shaped diapers and then by the development of super-absorbent polymers, first patented in 1966, which allowed for the introduction of super-absorbent diapers in 1984. In 2001, disposable diapers were, on average, three times less bulky than they were in the early 1980s, significantly decreasing transportation, workforce, and storage costs. Since the early 1980s, disposable diapers have faced a great deal of criticism for their environmental impact, a subject which continues to ignite research and debate. Because of their efficiency, some have also accused disposable diapers of delaying toilet-training for young children.
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Gladwell, Malcolm. 2001. "Smaller; The Disposable Diaper and the Meaning of Progress." The New Yorker, Nov. 26: 74.
Kohno, Goro. 1987. "History of Diapering in Japan." Pediatrician 14 (suppl. 1): 2–5.
Thurer, Shari L. 1994. Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
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CAROLINE HINKLE MCAMANT