Marion Donovan- Inventor of the Modern Cloth Diaper, The Boater. 1946

boaterdiaper 1

When it comes to the history and legend behind cloth diapers the Boater cannot be ignored.  The inventor, Marion Donovan, was a new mother solving the age old problem of leaky diapers.  A young and educated women, Marion quit her job as an assistant beauty editor at Vogue to be a homemaker when she started her family.   An inventive spirit was in her blood- her father and uncle invented a lathe tool used for automobile parts and they wrote the book on using it that went on to sell 1.5 million copies- so it wasn’t long after her baby was born that she became an inventor herself.

Marion Donovan with a baby modeling the Boater
Marion Donovan with a baby modeling the Boater, image from my personal collection

Her first daughter Sharon was the inspiration for her revolutionary waterproof diapering system.  Sharon  would wet through her pinned-on flat at nap time, leaving the crib and her clothing soaked.  Marion tried the only waterproof option of the day, rubber pants, but they caused terrible rashes and chafing.  It was either wash the sheets and clothes or have her baby suffer rashes- neither option was ideal for any mother- and it was by chance that Marion solved the problem!

I went to all the big names that you could think of and they said ‘we don’t need it- no woman has asked us for that…’ so I went into manufacturing myself.

Legend has it that Marion Donovan was in her bathroom and the waterproof shower curtain caught her eye.  She immediately had that light bulb moment and went about cutting from it a section and went to work with her sewing machine.  It took 3 years of perfecting the design, she used measurements from friends’ babies and measured babies at Bellevue Hospital weekly to achieve perfect sizing for her pattern. She also tested several materials and settled on moisture proof nylon after trying rubber, rayon, and plastic.  All evidence suggests that Marion was the first to implement nylon instead of rubber for waterproof baby pants, a material that other brands would use for diaper covers well into the last two decades until modern polyurethane laminate entered the equation.  During this time period doctors and infant care manuals specifically warned mothers against using rubber pants so you can only imagine the excitement around a pant that was doctor recommended and that solved the rashes caused by the old rubber pants.

The diaper came to be known as the “Boater” because, as her husband Jim, a sailing enthusiast, said “Call it boater, because, like a good boat, it’s leakproof.” in an article from 1952. 25 years later in an interview Marion says it was because it looked like a boat.  The entire design was innovative and meant to provide an easy experience for mom plus comfort for the baby.

The Boater- original image- Marion Donovan
The Boater- original image used for newspaper coverage, 1949, image from my personal collection

Gimbels Boater advertisementThe design featured 3 snaps at each side and were there for sizing up as the baby grew.  The diaper came out in pink, blue, or white and was sold in 4 sizes for $1.95 in 1949.  The diaper shell had an opening in the center, like many diaper covers still do today, meant to hold a diaper folded into a rectangle.  Not only was it the first diaper to be waterproof without discomfort, but it was the first to use snaps.   It was not the first pinless diaper as many say (the first pinless diaper I can find was designed by Joseph LaKritz in 1940).  The legs did not constrict but did have a bit of shape to them.  It seemed that Marion was very concerned about the tightness of rubber pants around legs and wanted baby to be comfortable.  The sides were meant to keep the waste in but I’d wager it wasn’t 100% effective.

Not only was Marion a good inventer, but she was a savvy business woman.  She turned her home into the headquarters for the Boater because the men she turned to didn’t see value in the idea.  During an interview in 1975 with Barbara Walters she explained “I went to all the big names that you could think of and they said ‘we don’t need it- no woman has asked us for that…’ so I went into manufacturing myself.” She smartly pursued the patent early on and partnered with a lingerie manufacturer at first after the manufacturers of the rubber pants already on the market turned down her idea.  The Boater made it’s debut at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949 and was an immediate success.  The newspapers of the day heralded the invention as a wonder that every parent must use and by 1950 the Boater had already reached 1.25 million in sales.  It was set to come in prints as of April 1950 including polka dot in blue, checks, and stripes.

miamiherladnewsmariondonovanboater

By the time her patent had been granted in 1951 Marion Donovan had already reached a deal to sell it for a million dollars. Her next idea was still focused on diapering- she wanted to make a disposable insert to go with her Boater pants to replace the cloth diaper. As famously recounted, the men in the paper industry laughed her out of the room. Marion is credited by many to have invented the disposable diaper but because her product was never made, and there are plenty of other companies prior to the Boater to have made some variation of a disposable paper diaper, that compliment from history is overblown in my opinion. Still, her product was the first of its kind and was the inspiration for other, later and more modern diaper pant covers yet to come such as the Playtex Dryper.

Marion went on to do great things and held numerous patents unrelated to diapering and the baby industry. Most remarkably, she went back to college for a degree in Architecture from Yale at the age of 41 and designed her own home, then continued on inventing after. She has become an enviable figure in history and can certainly be considered one of the most important figures in the history of diapering.  Marion passed away due to heart disease at age 81 in 1998.

Sources: The Miami News – Jul 3, 1949The Spokesman-Review – Nov 19, 1998Sunday Herald – Nov 19, 1950, Spokane Daily Chronicle – Mar 11, 1952Not For Women Only with Barbara Walters, 1975.  Photographs from the personal collection of Kim Rosas.

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  • Megan Richardson

    Awesome research Kim! Pretty awesome how far cloth diapers have come. And you’d think Barbara Walters could have gotten the name right, geez she just keeps calling it a bloater!

  • macy paquin

    That’s actually really cool thank you for sharing this. And thank you marion for not giving up and starting the road to modern cloth diapers that we all love.

  • Sarah Slocumb Kusznir

    Such a cool article! As a history nerd, I love background info like this!

  • Bailey Renee Duke

    Wow, that’s really cool!

  • Branda Nelson

    I so want to try to make one of these now, just to try it out, lol. Very interesting story!

  • This is very cool! I had no idea of the history behind cloth diapers, but I do now thanks to you Kim. Great article.

  • Christine

    Super interesting! 🙂 I’m glad you shared.

  • LC Kid

    Men are real idiots sometimes, and back then they gave women no respect at all. Kudos to this fine woman, her creative mind, and staying with her idea.