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The History of Diapers


stack of baby diapers

When people think about diapers today, they think about disposable diapers such as Pampers, or super-soft cloth diapers made of natural fibers. They assume that the diapers will be kind to a baby's delicate skin, hold a sufficient amount of baby waste, and be reliable for long periods of time. Did you know, however, that diapers weren't always this way? The history of diapers is rather interesting, and filled with surprising facts that you may have never even heard of. Let's take a look.

The Earliest Diapers

Although many moms didn’t diaper their babies because the “trend” was to go naked, there are historical documents that suggest forms of diapers were used even in ancient times. Babies may have been wrapped with milkweed leaf, animal skins, moss, linens, and other natural resources to help protect them from the elements, and prevent disease from the spread of germs.

In Europe, the act of swaddling served as a form of diaper. Linen was wrapped about a babies limbs and body. This linen would have captured the waste, and keep the baby warm all throughout the year. Each time a baby was unswaddled, dry linen was used.

Inuit people in the colder climates of Alaska, Greenland, Canada, and Siberia placed moss around a baby's bottom and then covered it with sealskin to help both keep the baby dry and insulate the scarce heat that is essential for survival in these rigid climates.

Native Americans in both North and South America followed a practice similar to the Inuit people, but instead of moss and sealskin, these mothers used packed grass and rabbit skin.
Those in tropical climates let their babies be naked and simply anticipated a baby's elimination schedule (or when they’d most likely go potty) through a process called elimination communication.


The First Cloth Diapers

The first time cloth diapers were used across a society was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in England during the mid to late 1500's. These diapers were not, however, similar to cloth diapers of today in two distinct ways:

  • The diapers were rarely changed, so that a child wore a soiled diaper for days before the diapers were changed.  This practice started to vanish as medicine advanced, and it was discovered that filth and human waste was a source of disease.
  • The soiled cloth was rarely washed. The waste would be shaken out of the diaper and then hung to dry. Once dry, the diaper would be used again.  Again - as science progressed and people learned more about how diseases are spread, begin began to wash their diapers.

But the term“diaper” didn't come into common usage until the late 1800's. Even then, the term diaper didn't mean what it means today. It was the term for a cloth with small geometric patterns. The first baby diapers were made of this kind of cloth, and thus, called diapers.

By the late 1800's, infants in Europe and the United States were all wearing cloth diapers that resemble today's diapers. They were made of linen or flannel, were folded into a rectangular shape, and held onto the baby with safety pins. The first mass-made cloth diapers in the US were produced by Maria Allen in 1887.

By the early 1900's, washing diapers became common. After use, diapers were boiled, because the world had become aware of germs and bacteria. Diapers were washed in big steel pots of boiling water and then hung to dry in the sun. With the need for clean diapers came the idea of the diaper service, which would bring fresh, clean diapers directly to your door. This type of service took off during World War II when more mothers began working outside the home, holding down the normal 9 to 5 jobs that their husbands had left to fight in Europe and the Pacific.

It wasn't until the 1920's that rubber pants were commonplace. Until this time, diapers were often doubled, and needed to be changed often because of leakage and staining. When latex rubber was finally made available to the public at large, rubber pants made their debut. Adding rubber pants kept cloth diapers from leaking onto clothes, furniture, and grandmas everywhere! In the 1950's, rubber pants changed to plastic pants because plastic was cheaper, easier to produce, and didn’t irritate a baby’s skin like rubber. Despite the change, many people still refer to them as rubber pants.

The First Disposable Diapers

Although many will assume the first disposable diaper looked a lot like today's Pampers, they would be wrong. The first disposable diaper was created in 1942 in Sweden, and was nothing more than an absorbent pad held in place with a pair of rubber pants. These pads were made from unbleached creped cellulose tissue, because cotton was a war material that was difficult to come by, and every spare scrap was donated to help in the war effort.

After this first introduction, many other early disposable diapers came about:

  • George M Schroder, in 1947, was asked to create a disposable diaper out of nonwoven fabric.
  • Valerie Hunter Gordon, in 1947, developed a 2-piece disposable diaper.
  • In 1949, Eastern Airlines developed a disposable diaper for long flights, which became known as CHUX.
  • In 1950, disposable cellulose wadding inside of a knitted mesh came in a long roll. Parents would cut the material to fit the baby.

During this period of time, disposable diapers were a luxury item. They were used mainly for special occasions like flying across the country, seeing a show, or going on a long car trip. These diapers held very little moisture, were not well fitted, had no way to be held secure, and had limited use. However, parents believed they were a great invention.

Pampers Swaddlers Diapers

Pampers Diapers Takes Off

Vic Mills, an employee of Procter and Gamble, loved the idea of disposable diapers and used them on a vacation with his grandson. However, he was unhappy with many aspects of these original disposables, and began developing a better product that came into the market in 1961. This product was known as Pampers, and in the intervening years, it would come to dominate the baby diaper landscape.

Instead of using paper fibers, cellulose fibers were used to make the diapers more absorbent. This made Pampers an immediate hit. However, stores had no idea where to stock the items. Depending on the store, you could find Pampers in the convenience section, the food aisle, with the paper products, and even with medications! Although they were very convenient, they still had no way to keep them secure, so parents had to be sure to keep tape handy, until they implemented the idea of the self-clinging diaper.

Competition for Disposable Diapers

By the late 1960's, Pampers had competition with companies such as Huggies maker Kimberly-Clark. This competition was just what parents needed, because it spurred on new design improvements that led to better fitting, less leaky diapers. The biggest of these design improvements was the addition of lateral tapes, that helped the diaper stay secure on the baby, without the need of pins or tape, by Johnson and Johnson in 1970.

Other improvements included:

  • More absorbency
  • Hourglass shape for better fit between the legs
  • Elastic in the legs and waist for a better fit
  • New materials
  • Aloe Vera, germ protection, skin conditioners, wetness indicators, and other product improvements
  • Biodegradable materials

Cloth Diapers Revisited

Although a move to disposable diapers had begun, improvements to the cloth diaper continued. In 1946, Marion Donovan created something called a Boater, which was a waterproof covering for cloth diapers. The boater used snaps instead of pins, leading to a better fit, and by extension, better retention for baby waste.

Then, in 1950, cloth diapers were improved again when diapers were packaged already pre folded. The fold added extra layers of cotton in the center of the diaper. The sewn-shut fold made the diaper the right size for most babies.

Although cloth diapers took a backseat to disposables during the 70's and 80's, they made a huge comeback during the 90's due to the concern of environmental issues. The sheer number of disposable diapers in the landfills caused many parents to return to cloth diapers, which were reusable, and far more eco-friendly than their non-biodegradable cousins.

The Internet took off during the same period of time, and large cloth diaper manufacturers established an online presence. The Motherease company began selling one-size-fits-all diapers by mail order before turning to the net, while BornToLove was the first online diaper company of its kind.

Eventually, cloth diapers became a cottage industry, with BabyByYou owning the cottage licensing for many different types of cloth diapers. Parents around the world now make one-size-fits-all diapers, as well as fitted and contour diapers.

Soon, the idea of “feeling” good on baby's skin became the cloth diaper craze. Companies like FuzziBunz and Happy Heinys came out with fleece diaper pocket covers. The cloth diaper was placed inside the fleece covering, offering the comfort of fleece against the baby's bottom, while keeping a baby warm no matter what the temperature might be.

Then come something called wool soakers. These diaper covers are made from wool and are worn over diapers. They are soft, breathable, and have natural antibacterial properties. The best part is that they absorb 1/3 of their weight in water.

Eventually, the actual cloth diaper, rather than the cover, began to change. GroVia received a patent for their hybrid cloth diaper in 2009, and one year later, Boingo Baby developed a new diaper fastener. In 2014, Diaper Diamond created a cloth diaper sprayer shield that makes it easier to rinse and clean cloth diapers.

Darling Girl Diaper Cake by Lil' Baby Cakes

A Fun Way to Gift Disposable Baby Diapers

In addition to the traditional use of disposable baby diapers, Lil’ Baby Cakes uses Pampers Swaddlers to create a beautiful, memorable, and 100% usable baby gift known as a baby diaper cake. With unique designs from jungle to snowman to twin monkeys, and fit for boys, girls, or in gender neutral varieties, mothers around the world are delighted to receive disposable diapers as a gift.

Why are baby diaper cakes such a wonderful gift for parents-to-be?

• They are beautiful.
• They are memorable.
• They are made with premium disposable diapers
• They are decorated with quality products from Johnson & Johnson, Burt’s Bees, and Gund.
• They can be used as gifts, shower centerpieces, or even fun baby sex reveal parties

The history of diapers is a work in progress. New developments continue to be made to both disposable and cloth diapers. Pampers, the first disposable, and the one we use for our baby diaper cakes, continues with new advances each year. As technology and medicinal practices continue to advance, it’s a sure bet that diapers will only to grow in both comfort and absorption as the years progress.

Diapers, whether cloth or disposable, are becoming thinner, more comfortable, and more environmentally friendly each year. Comparisons to the first diapers are laughable, and by today’s standards, they seem primitive, even barbaric. However, as long as we have babies, there will be a need for diapers, so diaper changes will continue. Who knows, the advances in the diaper industry may make diapers today just as laughable.

One thing is for certain. The history of diapers is a story that will be continued and Lil’ Baby Cakes will continue making quality diaper cakes for their customers.

You are invited to view our handmade creations using diapers: Lil' Baby Cakes

Get in touch today

We are available via snail mail, phone and email:

Lil' Baby Cakes
13335 15 Mile Road
Sterling Heights, MI 48312

1-866-944-2253 (8 am to 8 pm EST, Monday through Friday)

Or you can simply fill out the contact form.

We answer your email inquires promptly during normal business hours. After hour inquires are answered by the next business day.