Marion Donovan, inventor of the first disposable diaper, told Barbara Walters that one simple question guided her work: "What do I think will help a lot of people and most certainly will help me?"
The advantage—and the downside—of this philosophy was that when she first started out in the 1940s men controlled manufacturing. And to them, the problems she was fixing might as well not have existed.
These men, one can imagine, had rarely, if ever, changed a baby's diaper. Certainly none of them had been charged with the responsibility of dealing—day in and day out (and late night in and late night out)—not only with soggy strips of cloth, pinned around a baby's bottom, but with soggy sheets and blankets that were soiled, too, when the diapers leaked through.
Donovan, who was married in 1942 and by 1946 was on her second baby, did have to deal with that. And she had to deal with the terrible rubber "baby pants" that claimed to solve the leakage problem. Those baby pants might not have leaked, but they also gave babies diaper rash and dug into their soft little baby legs and baby bellies.
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Donovan was not the sort of person who settled for other people's design failures. First from waterproof shower curtains, later from nylon parachute material, she cut out and sewed together more breathable diaper covers. Then, she had a better idea: She made the cover into a container, into which a baby's caretaker could stuff absorbent paper. She called it the Boater, and she went out to find a manufacturer.
"I went to all the big names that you can think of, and they said, 'We don't want it. No woman has asked us for that. They're very happy and they buy all our baby pants,'" she told Walters in 1975. "So, I went into manufacturing myself."
In 1949, the Boater went on sale at Saks Fifth Avenue. Soon, they started selling out. "It is not often that a new innovation in the Infants' Wear field goes over with the immediate success of your Boaters," the president of Saks wrote to her.
That's not hard to imagine: Presumably, it wasn't often that new innovations in Infants' Wear came from the people who actually used them, either. Even Donovan's success with the Boater didn't convince manufacturers that they might want to listen to her. The Boater wasn't fully disposable—you could wash and reuse the nylon part—but when Donovan proposed making a throw-away diaper out of paper, no one she talked to wanted to try.
Today, some 95 percent of babies wear disposable diapers. And according to the EPA, each baby in the United States goes through about 8,000 of them.