The Disposable Diaper: A Bottom-Up Solution

Marion Donovan was born in Indiana in 1917. Her mother passed away when she was seven, and she spent much of her young years at the manufacturing plant her father ran. Her father was an inventor and encouraged Marion’s curiosity. Her first invention was a tooth cleaning powder which she created while in elementary school.

Marion had an unusual early start in her career. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English, she then earned a master’s degree in architecture. Her first job was with Vogue magazine. It was when she had three children that she returned to her inventive life.

When she was raising her second child, she became frustrated with diapers. Cloth diapers leaked and when they were replaced with rubber baby pants, they gave her baby a rash. She tried to find a material that would be leak-proof but breathe to prevent diaper rash. At first, she tried shower curtains and nylon parachute material. Neither was satisfying.

What she did was create an envelope consisting of a parachute cloth that could be stuffed with an absorbent material. She called her invention a boater. She was able to patent her diaper.

No manufacturer was interested because they said no woman had asked for a better diaper. (Duh!!) She decided to manufacture the diaper herself. She convinced Saks Fifth Avenue to carry her product, and it was an instant success.

Two years later she sold her rights to the diaper for what would be equivalent to nearly $31 million today. Marion continued inventing and was awarded 20 patents over her lifetime. When you floss your teeth, it’s likely that the container for the floss is one of Marion’s inventions.

She died in 1988 from heart disease. Seventeen years later, she was finally recognized as an inventor by being selected into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. It’s unlikely that any male with her impact would have waited nearly 70 years after their invention to be recognized.

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“Changing a diaper is a lot like getting a present from your grandmother – you’re not sure what you’ve got but you’re pretty sure you’re not going to like it.” – Jeff Foxworthy (comedian)

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