The woman who invented the disposable diaper (known as a 'nappy' in England) has died. The Telegraph reports:
Valerie Hunter Gordon, who has died aged 94, helped to deliver mothers from the daily drudgery of mangle, washing line and ironing board by inventing the first disposable nappy system.
In 1947 Valerie, the wife of an Army officer, was living in Camberley, Surrey, and expecting her third child. She was not looking forward to the prospect of washing, ironing and drying the traditional towelling nappies which were all that were available at the time.
“I just didn’t want to wash them,” she told an interviewer last year. “You had to iron them as well. It was awful labour. I was amazed you couldn’t buy a disposable version. I enquired of the US and you couldn’t buy them there. It was extraordinary.”
So she decided she had better do something about it herself.
After a certain amount of trial and error (initially she used old nylon parachutes, of which there were many spare after the war), and drawing on her considerable needlework skills, she came up with a pair of adjustable PVC waterproof pants fastened with poppers, with a cord around the waist, which could be wiped clean, or washed and bleached. Into these she slipped a pad of cellulose wadding with a thin layer of cotton wool next to the baby’s skin to prevent soreness. The waterproof pants prevented leakage and were shaped to ensure that the pad remained in position without safety pins.
Unlike modern all-in-one disposable nappies, Valerie’s design meant that only the biodegradable dirty pads were disposed of, while the waterproof pants could be rinsed and used again. This system created very little permanent waste; it also significantly reduced the water and electricity consumption associated with washing cotton nappies.
The nappies were a huge success on her baby son Nigel and she soon began taking orders from the wives of other senior officers at Staff College in Camberley.
“My husband used to cut out the pads on the floor of the attic when he came home from work and I used to run them up with my mother’s old sewing machine... I would go out for tea with the wives and babies, and they would say, 'Oh Valerie, wouldn’t you make one for me?’ It became a full-time job. It was more hard work than washing the damn things.”
There's more at the link.
I'm old enough to remember my mother laundering diapers for my two younger sisters. She had an old washing machine with a mangle above the tub, rather like this one.
She'd soak the diapers in a pail to remove 'solids', then wash them, then feed them through the mangle into a basin at the rear filled with clean water to rinse them. Once rinsed, they were 'mangled' once more before being hung out to dry. It was a big job, and she had to repeat it (sometimes with the help of a domestic servant, which was fairly common in South Africa in those years) several times a week (particularly when the girls got diarrhea).
She didn't use disposable diapers because they were more expensive, in those days, than the regular variety, and our household budget was fairly tight. She sometimes complained to me, when I was older, that the price dropped just too late to make her life easier!