The Mother Of All Diapers

Happy Mother’s Day!

Today we honor all our mothers — those who are here and those who are gone. Our own, our mothers’ mothers, and those unrelated by blood but whom we love nonetheless.

This being “06880” — where Westport meets the world — we give a special shout-out to Marion Donovan.

Marion Donovan

An Indiana native and 1939 graduate of Rosemont College near Philadelphia, she became an assistant Vogue beauty editor in New York. But after marrying James Donovan — a leather importer — and starting a family, the Donovans moved to Westport.

She was not a typical early-postwar suburban housewife. Though she majored in English literature, she inherited her father’s tinkering gene. He helped invent the South Bend lathe, a major metalworking innovation.

His daughter’s invention was — in many ways — just as important.

When her 2nd child was born in 1946, Donovan grew tired of constant diaper changes. As the New York Times reports:

With cloth diapers serving more as wick than sponge, and with rubber baby pants virtually assuring a nasty case of diaper rash, Mrs. Donovan started looking for a way to hold the dampness in without keeping the air out.

Which is how moisture-proof diapers were created.

In Westport.

Marion Donovan, with a baby modeling her invention.

The “aha!” moment came when she cut a panel out of her shower curtain. It took 3 years of experimenting at her sewing machine, but eventually Donovan devised the Boater, “a re-usable diaper cover made of surplus nylon parachute cloth.”

The Times notes another important “advance in diaper technology”: Donovan replaced “the optimistically named safety pins with plastic snaps.”

The diapers — sold first at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949 — were an immediate hit. In 1951 she sold her rights for $1 million, and “moved on to her next brainstorm: replacing cloth diapers with disposable absorbent paper.”

However, paper company executives — all men — told her that disposable diapers were “not necessary.”

A decade later, Donovan’s idea finally led to Pampers (they’re credited to Procter & Gamble, and a guy named Victor Mills). By then, Donovan’s “diaper days were over.”

She’d moved on to other inventions, including a hanger that holds 30 skirts or slacks in a tight space; a wire soap holder that drains directly into the basin; an elastic zipper allowing women to zip up the back of a dress by pulling down from the front, and the Dentaloop (it prevents floss users from cutting off circulation in their fingers).

Not all those inventions were made in Westport. At some point she moved to Greenwich — where Donovan, who (of course!) earned an architecture degree from Yale at age 41, designed her own house.

She received 20 patents, between 1951 and 1996. Donovan died in 1998, at 81. In 2015, she was inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Marion Donovan’s diaper patent. Filed in 1949, it was granted in 1951.

Her name is not well known. To the best of my knowledge, her inventions have never been honored in the town where she once lived and worked.

But on this — and every other — day, mothers (and fathers) should thank Marion Donovan.

Moisture-proof diapers are nothing to pooh-pooh.

(Special Mother’s Day hat tip to Maxine Bleiweis. For Marion Donovan’s full  New York Times obituary, click here. )

2 responses to “The Mother Of All Diapers

  1. Great story, Dan. Really heart-warming that you found this information to share with us, new – and old – Westporters.

  2. Ann Marie Flynn

    I believe a small monument should be put up in her honor. The “diaper” saga is amazing. In no way do I miss the trucks that came buy to pick up the used ones….and replace them with clean ones…also no more worry on where to put the bucket in the house and fill it. Much is to be said about the
    “Clean air” that is so pleasant now.

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