There are several documents that refer to the special clothing used for the babies of ancient times. Milkweed leaf wraps, animal skins, and other creative natural resources, a far cry from today's disposable diapers. The Egyptian, the Aztec, the Romans, and many others, who left documentation of their day to day activities, mention its use. Its need covers all segments of the population, from princesses to beggars. This is one of the very first items that distinguished man from animals, believe it or not!.
Infants have been "wrapped in swaddling bands" in many European societies since antiquity. Swaddling bands were strips of linen or wool that were wrapped tightly around each limp and then crosswise around the body (like many Yoga advocates still do in India). In Elizabethan times, babies were treated to a fresh diaper only every few days. Innuits, an Eskimo people, placed moss under sealskin.
In some Native American tribes, mothers packed grass under a diaper cover made of rabbit skin, as it was done by the Incas in South America. In warmer tropical climates babies were mostly naked and mothers tried to anticipate baby's bowel movements to avoid any mess near the house. In the American West of pioneer days, wet diapers were seldom washed, most times they just hung by the fireplace to dry and then use again; as you can imagine, skin rash was a serious problem. In Europe, it wasn't until the Industrial Revolution from 1820 onwards that the working people started taking pains to contain their baby's waste more carefully, having acquired sufficient wealth to buy household furniture and the need to protect it.
By the late 1800's infants in Europe and North America were wearing the progenitor of the modern diaper. A square of rectangle of linen, cotton flannel, or stockinet was folded into a rectangular shape and held in place with safety pins.
One of the first ways to reduce the diaper rash, was after there was a better understanding of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and was understood how to kill them, or at least how to control them. At the beginning of the 20th century, many concerned mothers started to use boiled water in order to reduce more effectively the common rash problem. Boiling a big pot with diapers required great amounts of energy and time. Probably some readers in their 40's, 50's and older, may still remember the big steel pot used to boil the used diapers of our brothers or sisters, and then the "ceremonial" hanging of the wet diapers to allow them for drying to the sun. Younger readers have to watch old Disney cartoons to understand what I am talking about. ("Goofy the perfect father" Disney, 1948)
The typical diaper used in the 40's was a thick rectangular cloth made of cotton, this piece was folded using traditional teachings of "ones ancestors" (not a joke!). It was a beautiful tradition that grandmothers thought their daughters for their first grandchild. Of course, it was also a chance to talk about how much baby's usually resemble their grandmother's, don't you agree? (we better not argue about that, if you know what is best for the family). However, this was unacceptable for the "industrial revolution babies", and the new evolving society based in the "American dream". During World War II, the increase of working mothers brought the need for the "diaper service". Fresh cotton diapers would be delivered on an as-needed basis, to moms tuckered out from building planes and tanks all day. As with many of the greatest inventions, it is not clear who can be credited as the "single inventor" of the disposable diaper, since it evolved by the addition of many gradual steps. Early forms of tissue-based disposable under-pads and diaper inserts were made available at the beginning of this decade in Sweden. The very first disposable baby diaper was introduced to the market in part as a result to the shortage of cotton fibers due to the war effort. About the same time in 1946, in the United States, a Westport housewife named
The disposable diaper was a "luxury" item then, used only for those special occasions, like vacation trips, visits to the parents or the doctor. It was not common to see a baby wearing a disposable diaper, maybe just as rare as finding an empty seat on the leading Broadway show when you do not have a reservation (you get the picture).
The first truly disposable diaper was made using a very simple rectangular design. The absorbent core was made of several layers of tissue paper (15 to 25), the outside used a plastic film, and no tapes were provided with the product. The total capacity of these diapers was estimated to be around 100 ml, so it provided a very limited service (a one time use). Its disposability, however, added a great value to the parents, and immediately it was regarded as one of the great inventions of humankind. Believe it or not! (again) For a complete Time-Line History of disposable diapers in the United States, please visit this link: Time-Line US
During the 50's there was little change in terms of diaper design. The disposable diaper market share was very low due to the high unitary cost of the diaper and its low performance, its use was limited to very few developed countries of the world. In this decade Kendall and Parke-Davis enter the US market. The sanitary napkin had a rapid growth in the European and North American markets. It was not until the end of this decade when Vic Mills, who worked for the Procter and Gamble company, invented "Pampers", as he was looking at better products to use for his baby grandson (conceptualized in 1959 during a summer vacation trip), the diaper was not launched into the market until 1961.
With the 60's the disposable diaper evolved quickly as the industry learned the requirements of the mothers. Instead of tissue, a pulp mill was introduced, a decade after the first disposable sanitary napkins arrived into the market. Using cellulose fibers instead of paper, improved the performance of the diaper. With the "Pampers", launched in the spring of 1961, the new baby diaper was a "smash hit". With the development of better nonwovens, softer top sheets made of Rayon started to transform the baby diaper, the diaper was offered in two sizes, medium and large. The diaper was made very thick in order to reduce leakage; some medium diapers had weights of 65 gr. and even more! The diaper did not have means for attachment, since there were no lateral tapes included, this situation created a problem to the consumer, since they needed to have tapes handy in order to use the diaper. In 1966, Pampers launched a new C-fold design and by 1969 started a "third size". A typical commercial diaper machine ran at speeds of 150 diapers per minute. The best diapers had overall leakage values of 8 to 10%.
The70's proved to be the baby boom explosion for the disposable diaper industry in the developed countries, and even in some other areas of the world less fortunate. Competition between Procter & Gamble and Kimberly Clark to own the world diaper market resulted in quick diaper design improvements and lower prices to the consumer. World demand exceeded the production capacity for many years. Market penetration had an exponential increase in the US, Europe and Japan. In Latin America many countries also experienced this boom, including Mexico, Argentina and Chile. Some of the changes were: a new fastening system with lateral paper tapes was introduced as part of the improved convenience of the product, this new invention was introduced by Johnson & Johnson in 1970. Improved folding of the diaper using the "Z fold" or "pre-folded" diaper concept, the introduction of "hot melts" instead of cold adhesives for reduced "open times" that resulted on faster diaper line speeds, and the addition of more options in regards to size and total absorbent capacity to the market; diaper machines were running at the incredible speed of 250 diapers per minute. Some comments started to appear from baby's doctors complaining about the bulk of the absorbent diaper at the crotch and its effect on the babies developing bones. The shape of the diaper changed for a better fit, from the old "rectangular shape" to a more modern "hourglass shape". In 1975, the Hourglass shaped "Luvs" was first introduced to the US market. Kimberly Clark, introduced in 1976 its shaped Huggies diaper. Lateral elastomerics were used at the end of the decade by most producers in an attempt to improve the fit.
With the 80's a new "reengineered" diaper was reborn. Absormex started operations at the beginning of this decade, in Monterrey Mexico in 1981, Carlos Richer started to work for Absormex in June 1984, a date to remember on diaper history, at least on mine!!
During 1981 and 1982, two companies launched into the US market what it was claimed to be a "biodegradable" diaper. Starch was added to the poly film in the extrusion process in order to produce biodegradable films. The F.T.C. (Federal Trade Commission) forced the product out from the market, since there was no scientific evidence to support the claims. The film fragmented into pieces, with UV light, however the molecular weight did not change enough, and the product was not truly "bioactive". It was also agreed that the normal cycle for a diaper, ends in a landfill (buried without light). For this reason, the F.T.C. forced the product out from the shelves after winning a well publicized trial.
The use of Elastomerics in 1983, improved the fit of the diaper. Elastics were used in the legs before, but now were also added to the waist. The nonwoven was changed from Rayon to Polypropylene thermal-bond, which provided a softer and more comfortable feel for the baby. A new tape system, called "target tape", based on the use of two simultaneous lateral tapes instead of just one, was attempted to help repositioning the diaper, this was a world wide failure in the market and abandoned a few years later in 1986. A frontal tape was first developed in Europe to allow the mother the convenience of being able to open and close the diaper as many times as needed without tearing the film. During the beginning of the decade an environmental movement attacked the industry, arguing the ecological problems created by the use of the disposable diaper, this was more evident in Europe and Canada and with less intensity in the US and Latin America.
The super-absorbent (SAP) was first introduced into the diaper in 1984, following its use in the sanitary napkins. With the SAP, a new generation of high performance diapers was possible. Not only diapers were thinner, but also added improved retention to the performance, which helped to reduce leakage and reduce diaper rash. Premium diapers with leakage below 2% became a reality at last. The average weight of a typical medium size diaper was reduced about 50% from the weights used in the previous decade; this was just perfect to show the good intentions of the industry in terms of its interest in the ecology, it also made good economic sense due to the reduced packaging cost. In addition, many studies were made to compare disposable diapers with cloth diapers, generating a debate that still continues today. In Japan, the concept of "breathability" was introduced successfully into the market in 1983, leading in some way the design of the disposable diaper, even when the fact of the matter is that a wet diaper losses very little humidity by this breathable process (a diaper with 200 ml of urine losses less than 1% of its weight after 24 hours) but the gimmick remained. The training diaper was also introduced in Japan for the very first time in 1989, which extended the use of diapers to larger babies, or young kids (3 to 4 years old).
With the 90's, many new features were added to the baby diaper, SMS (spunbond-meltblown-spunbond) top-sheets were used, the cloth-like backsheet replaced the regular poly film in the higher end of the market. Mechanical tapes were introduced into the market, in the form of Velcro or other types of hook and loop. Leg cuffs made of SMS nonwovens helped to reduce even more the leakage on the legs of the babies, they were first used in diapers in 1991 after a polemic patent cross license between P&G and KC. Elasticized mechanical tapes were developed too. The superabsorbent used in the diapers was improved using a new surface cross linker, this helped to reduce the "gel block" problem, phenomena which prevented liquids from moving when the absorbent was saturated with water. Many new "Bells and Whistles" like Aloe Vera, Germ protection, Skin conditioners, wetness indicators, "glow in the dark" frontal tapes, etc. etc. are being used as the need to differentiate becomes more important in a market that is maturing. In the US the use of baby diapers have a market penetration of 95%. Western Europe and Japan have similar numbers, Latin America has many variations with numbers between 15% to 75%, Mexico as an example, has a market penetration of 48% (Today year 2002 is 68%). A typical diaper line of the 90's runs at speeds of 300 diapers per minute, some of the big players have machines that can go above 900 diapers per minute!, the important lesson is that speed is not always the best answer when the cost of capital makes it difficult to justify, this is specially true when the cost of labor is not a significant part of the diaper cost. At the end of the decade the shape of the absorbent core is changing from a typical "T" shape into a "rectangular shape", similar to the shape used in previous decades. A typical large diaper in Japan, used 12 to 15 gr of SAP in 1995, at the end of the decade the use of SAP changed to 9 to 12 gr. The increased productivity of the small independent producers added pressure to the big players, who in response, aggressively defended their intellectual property, transforming the industry into "lawyers heaven".
The clear trend for the future of the diaper industry 2000 and beyond is a thinner diaper, more comfortable for the baby, and friendly to the environment.
There will also be more economical products focused to those areas of the world that continue to have a low disposable diaper consumption, like China, India, North Africa, Latin America and Russia. The reduced freight cost associated to the compressed packaging is making many companies to reduce the number of plant locations into fewer larger factories. At the start of the new century the volume of diapers sold in the United States alone are well above 18 billion units per year.
In March 8, 2000, Absormex, a 100% Mexican owned company, launches to the market the first degradable diaper in the world, "Natural Baby Supreme". This new diaper degrades even without the existence of light (this is not a starch based product). It results in a dramatic change in the molecular weight, due to a chemical degradation process (-free radical, thermal and photo oxidation), to the point where the product becomes "bioactive". The speed for this degradation in the landfill is in the order of 2 magnitudes faster than conventional diapers (instead of a few centuries, a few years!). The product, when exposed to the outside environment, fragments in less than a month!. This is the first significant contribution of Mexico, to the history of the disposable diaper. With a large file of scientific evidence, and two patent pending, all claims printed in the bag have been proved, scientific reports will be published to the general public soon. Carlos Richer presented a paper at the Insight Conference (diaper industry's largest technical seminar) last October 2000, you can read his presentation here: Insight 2000. In 2001, Absormex launches "Earthpure" diapers in the United States, they are a private label distributed by Amway. With this new invention, we can forecast that in a not so far away future, all diapers will be made this way. At this time, Absormex's R&D staff is currently working in the next generation of environmentally friendly diapers, we will have a surprise for you!
This article is © R Carlos Richer 1998, 1999, 2000
Disclaimer: (*) This article is written with the best of my knowledge regarding the history of the diaper, it represents my own personal opinion in the matter. This article should not be used as an official history of the disposable baby diaper for any other commercial or legal use. Some extracts were taken from Dr. Berenice Krafchik artticle, Contemporary Pediatrics, March 2000