In the mid 19th century the basic cotton diaper evolved little. Newly available, cheap manufactured cotton fabrics supplied the demand for cloth diapers around the world. It was relative inexpensive, versatile, moderately absorptive, washable, and reusable. Diapers were typically rectangular or square in shape and were folded and fastened on infants as garments or undergarments. An important advance occurred in the late 1840s with the invention of the safety pin.
Between the 1880s and 1930s the United States government patent office recorded dozens of relevant diaper “inventions,” including shaped and fitted diaper designs, alternative fastening systems, absorbent inserts, medicated surfaces, and moisture-proof covers. During the next few decades, more ideas and innovations surfaced, including a diaper with a disposable paper lining, a rubberized version with a medicated surface, and a disposable absorbent cellulose pad insert. None of these inventions resulted in immediate commercial success.
In the 1930s, researchers in Europe and North America followed separate paths toward the disposable diaper; one originating in papermaking and the other in specialized fabrics for medical uses.
In Europe, the Swedish paper company Paulistrom Bruk capitalized on recent advances in papermaking in Germany: technology to convert wood pulp to soft cellulose. In 1936, Paulistrom brought used the cellulose in absorbent inserts for diapers in maternity wards. These inserts evolved into absorbent sheets that could be layered and covered with gauze to help prevent sticking to skin. After the war, Paulistrom began packaging the cellulose fluff in plastic mesh to further prevent sticking. After 1950, the company offered this product, called the “roll diaper,” in long rolls that consumers could cut and insert into diapers.
In the US, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, Chicopee Manufacturing Company, introduced gauze diapers in 1938. In the late 1940s, it offered cellulose-based disposable products, including CHUX Disposable Diapers. CHUX, advertised as being soft and absorbent with waterproof backing, was the first one-piece diaper, though it had no fasteners. Chicopee also sold a lower-cost two-piece diaper with a pulp-fiber disposable insert and a waterproof pant with snaps.
A few years later Marion Donovan, a housewife in Connecticut, designed a waterproof version that reduced leakage and could be mass-produced. Called the “boater”, it was made by inserting a conventional cloth diaper into a cut-up plastic shower curtain. Donovan was granted 4 patents for her designs, including the use of plastic snaps that replaced the traditional safety pins. She introduced the Boater at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949, where it became a success. In 1951 she sold her diaper patents to the children’s clothing manufacturer, Keko Corporation, for one million dollars.
As J&J’s diapers achieved modest success, other manufacturers appeared. By the early 1950s, Kendall Corporation, a direct competitor to J&J in bandages and surgical dressings, and Parke-Davis, a pharmaceutical and medical supply company, produced disposable diapers or absorbent inserts. Playtex invested in technology to enter the market as well. By the middle of the 1950s, disposable diapers were found in 80 percent of American households with infants, although they accounted for less than one percent of diaper changes due to the high cost. Prices typically were at least ten cents per diaper, while cloth diapers sold for 1-2 cents each, and diaper services typically charged 3-5 cents per diaper.