Inventor of the Diaper Cover and Forerunner of the Disposable Diaper

Press photograph of Donovan with standing baby modeling her invention, the diaper cover.

Marion Donovan (1917-1998) grew up as the daughter of an inventor. When she became a mother and began to see the areas where child care and homemaking could be improved. She naturally turned to problem-solving and patented what she invented.

Her first patented invention was a diaper cover. In the early fifties, she received four separate patents for different aspects of this item. The diaper cover was made from a very light plastic that could “breathe” so that the dampness did not cause the baby to get a rash. She also used snaps to close the diaper cover, meaning that mothers could do away with safety pins.

During this time, she knew that using a paper liner could result in a disposable diaper, which would be the ultimate improvement. However, diaper manufacturers failed to pick up on any aspect of her ideas.  

By the end of her life, Donovan had earned an advanced degree from Yale Architecture School, worked as a consultant to manufacturers of home products, and obtained twenty different patents on various types of personal conveniences.

Marion Donovan: Early Life

Marion O’Brien Donovan was born in 1917 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. When her father and his twin brother were young men, they invented an industrial lathe that could be used in creating automobile gears. So popular was the “South Bend lathe” that the brothers’ factory manufactured nothing but that lathe, and they did very well.

Photograph of Marion Donovan

Marion’s mother died when Marion was only seven, so Marion frequently spent her after-school time at the factory. Her father encouraged her curiosity, and when she wanted to create a new form of tooth powder, he helped show her what she needed to do to come up with her product. In the process he taught her a can-do spirit of problem solving.

After college, Marion took a job as assistant beauty editor at Vogue and met James Donovan, a leather importer. The couple married and moved to Westport, Connecticut, and started a family.

Idea Sparked by Necessity

Donovan got tired of using cloth diapers on her children. When she got the children up after a nap, the odds were good that the cloth diaper had leaked. She not only had to change the diaper and the baby’s undershirt but she generally had to change and launder all the bedding as well. (Diaper covers at that time were not very effective.)

stock photograph of baby's leg showing how disposable diapers can prevent leakage
Disposable diaper

Feeling that other mothers were probably similarly annoyed, Donovan sat down at her sewing machine with a shower curtain and began fashioning what she called a “boater” (to her, it looked like a boat). After much experimentation—and many shower curtains later—she created a reusable, leak-proof diaper cover.

Her First Product

The final product was made of nylon parachute cloth that seemed to reduce the incidence of diaper rash. The air could circulate through this lighter material so the baby’s bottom could dry off. Another improvement Donovan made was replacing safety pins with snaps. With a wriggling baby, annoying pin pokes to either mother or baby were entirely possible. The snaps solved that problem.

In 1949, Donovan successfully marketed the diaper cover to Saks Fifth Avenue. Shoppers made it an instant success. Adam Gimbel, president of Saks Fifth Avenue at the time, wrote to Donovan: “It is not often that a new innovation in the Infants’ Wear field goes over with the immediate success of your Boaters.”

By 1951, she received four patents on the product. Later that year she sold the rights to Keko Corporation of Kankakee, IL for $1 million.

She used that money to fund other inventions. Her goal was always to create products that made life more convenient and more organized.

Set to Work on Disposable Diaper

Donovan’s next goal was to dispense with the need to do so much laundry. She wanted to create a disposable diaper, and she set out to find a different type of paper that would be absorbent but also pull the moisture away from the baby’s skin to prevent diaper rash. She came up with a prototype of a paper diaper and began visiting paper manufacturers. However, no one was interested. The men all responded with the fact that the disposable diaper was “not necessary.”

Photograph of Marion Donovan showing how she is putting a baby in one of her diaper covers. June 19, 1949

Though she continued to discuss the idea, she was never able to find the right company to manufacture her idea.

Other Interests

During the 1950s, Donovan undertook graduate work in architecture. In 1958, she was one of three women in her class at Yale to receive this degree.

Between 1951-1996, Donovan received a total of twenty patents. She created the “Zippity-Do,” an elastic cord that could be temporarily attached to a zipper on the back of a dress. The wearer could use the cord to pull up the zipper by reaching over her shoulder. She also invented a soap dish that drained into the sink, and the DentaLoop, a dental floss circle that could be used by see-sawing the loop between the teeth. Her invention, The Big Hangup, was a hanger that could hold 30 garments neatly and store them conveniently.

Companies also hired her to consult on product development, and she used her knowledge of architecture to design her own home.

Marion Donovan believed it was always worth searching for ways to improve even the simplest things. Her philosophy paid off.

As for the Totally Disposable Diaper

Stock photograph of diapers
Disposable diapers proved to be easier to box and store because they condensed down.

The first totally disposable diaper in the U.S. was introduced by Proctor & Gamble in 1961. The company purchased the Charmin’ Paper Company in 1957. They assigned one of their chemical engineers, Victor Mills (1897-1997), to create new paper products.

Whether Mills had actually met with Donovan is not recorded, but certainly by that time the idea of a paper diaper was in the air. In Europe, a disposable diaper was even on the market, so many people were thinking about the possibilities.

Victor Mills was a grandfather who must have had some experience with diaper-changing and maybe even laundering, as he is the one credited with suggesting the product to P & G. These early disposable diapers still required pins. Soon the company made the switch to tape fastenings. This was the simplification process that Marion Donovan began with her boater.

Marion Donovan earned a place in the national Inventors Hall of Fame. She created many patented items that made life more convenient. She was inducted in May of 2015.

And Diaper Improvement Was Only Beginning

The disposable diaper introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1961 was a good start.

But chemists knew that more work was needed. Carlyle Harmon at Johnson & Johnson and Billy Gene Harper at Dow Chemical were both at work on high-performing diapers. Both men knew that the diapers would work better if the inner paper lining could pull moisture away from the baby’s bottom. It would permit the diaper to hold more liquid while also reducing diaper rash.

The chemicals under investigation were polymers. By adding this super-absorbent chemical, it greatly helped with absorption of the urine. Then sodium polyacrylate could absorb the urine, converting it into a gel so that the diaper could hold more liquid. This was particularly important overnight.

In 1966, both scientists filed patents on similar scientific work. Their separate but similar inventions would eventually herald a new day in the manufacture of disposable diapers. However, the industry did not fully switch over to using the superabsorbent polymers in diapers until 1978.

After that, diapers became thinner and thinner, and therefore, easier for companies to box, ship, and store.

And to think this all began with a woman, a sewing machine, and a shower curtain.

To read about another successful woman inventor read about Ruth Wakefield, the creator of the chocolate chip cookie.

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12 thoughts on “Inventor of the Diaper Cover and Forerunner of the Disposable Diaper”

  1. I wish I could help you but that would be difficult to trace. I don’t even know where to begin to see if there are any of her products still in the marketplace. It is more likely that her products have inspired improvements made by other people. She died in 1998, and many products have been released since then.
    Good luck in your search!

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