Look back at black and white images of babies wearing diapers and you may see something perplexing… every single baby’s diaper looks to be ill fitting and far too loose. The diapers are so loose that you begin wondering if they were even effective! The diapers are pinned in a way that leaves room all around the legs, plenty of room for little gifts to roll out from onto the linoleum floors. Not only that, but babies were almost never pictured wearing those poofy plastic pants we so often think of when “cloth diapers” are mentioned. Why?
This is the question I began asking myself as I started collecting old advertisements and photographs from the first half of the 20th century and the late 19th century. Today we expect all diapers to fit snug around the legs, stomach, and back. The fit is one of the most important aspects of proper diapering- too loose and stools can escape from the legs and back of the diaper, creating a mess for all parties. Our modern diapers are completely different than the old flats used prior to the 1950’s, but the style of diaper is just one piece of the puzzle.
Children’s fashion used to be dictated by the infant care manuals and advice columns of the day. Go back to parenting books before 1960 and you’ll see that baby care was a far cry from our routines. Cleanliness was touted as supreme and a reflection on the mother as much as the child’s future self. “A baby should never be left in a wet napkin, for the expectation of cleanliness should begin early.” (Maternal & Child Welfare Manual No. 9. 1956) To do such would encourage future unclean habits. “At a very early age, even at three months, a great deal can be done in teaching baby proper control over his bowel movements. Besides the early cultivation of a habit of regularity and cleanliness, which saves much work in the washing of diapers, the habit of regularity also helps to prevent constipation… but the end certainly justifies the means- that of doing away…with the ever offensive diaper.” (A Baby’s Day, p. 16. 1917.) Early potty training was the standard practice until the age of Dr. Spock in the 1960’s. Babies were expected to be on an elimination schedule- drastic measures to ensure they were not soiling their diapers were recommended to be taken- such as soapsticks hand carved to resemble an enema- were inserted into the rectum if digital rectal pressure didn’t produce results. (The Practical Care of the Baby, 1903) The methods were not always gentle, some babies were even strapped to their pierced chair (potty) as long as it took for a movement to be made. This strict mode of parenting went out of style when Dr. Spock, author of the best-selling book “Baby and Child Care”, wrote that babies should potty train when mentally ready. This explains why diapers, and their effective (tight) fit was less important prior. Diapers themselves were worn as infrequently as possible in order to reduce washing and expedite toilet training and there was no reason to make them any more effective or convenient.
“A babe of three months and upwards, ought to be held out, at least, a dozen times during the twenty-four hours; if such a plan were adopted, diapers might at the end of three months be dispensed with—a great desideratum-and he would be inducted into clean habits—a blessing to himself, and a comfort to all around, and a great saving of dresses and of furniture. ‘Teach your children to be clean. A dirty child is the mother’s disgrace,’ [Footnote: Hints on Household Management, By Mrs C. L. Balfour.] Truer words were never written,—A DIRTY CHILD IS THE MOTHER’S DISGRACE.” (Excerpt from Advice to a Mother on the Management of her Children, by Pye Henry Chavasse 1878)
Concerns over movement and development were also at play; doctors and advice manuals as well as family advice were all to leave diapers loose fitting. “The diaper should never be pinned too tight and must not be too thick.” (A Baby’s Day, 1917) Of concern to parents of girls was the constriction of the hips. (citation needed, I have found this information but lost the original source.) Mothers concerned about their daughter’s future child-birthing ability influenced the loose pinning.
Movement and the baby’s ability to freely exercise their legs in all ranges was important as well. Flats were large and when applied in certain fashions, were worn lower on the legs. Modern cloth diapers and disposable diapers are cut higher. To ensure babies could move their legs freely a loose application was required. Between the large flats, using pins, and the folding techniques of the era diapers were worn in a different way than today’s flats secured by a Snappi.
Even though diapers were applied loosely, the movement of a baby during wear would loosen the diaper even further. This can be seen even today when babies wear a flat or prefolded diaper.
One final reason diapers were applied loosely involves temperature and airflow. Heat rash and concerns over other diaper rashes caused by chafing and wetness were common. This is why rubber and vinyl diaper covers were never popular. Even though covers would have been much more effective at holding in the wetness and their tight fit from elastic around the legs and back is what we desire today to hold in the solid waste, they were cause for discomfort. “…under no circumstances should ‘stork pants’ -made of rubber sheeting- be put on the baby since they cause overheating and produce chafing.” (Our baby: a concise and practical guide for the use of mothers in the care and feeding of infants and young children, 1912)
There was a clear and obvious disdain for the waterproof covers; it was inferred that parents using them full time were lazy and cared more for their own convenience than their child’s. The alternative to the pants was wool, and these garments usually had to be hand knit by the mothers. Wool soakers were a more breathable way to keep furniture and laps dry but they required knitting and had to be hand washed, even after the home washing machine became popular.
“I had four children between 1938 and 1946… I knitted only one article, SOAKERS… They guaranteed a more contented baby, one without diaper rash… ‘Modern’ mothers bought the latex pants at a dollar a pair, but their babies suffered sore bottoms… Another plus for soaker knitting was that mothers developed strength of character to counter the ridicule of those who espised the ‘why bother?’ school of mothering.” Quote from Vivian Filipak regarding diaper methods of the 1940’s. From the book “No Idle Hands” by Anne MacDonald.
All of these factors combined, it now makes much more sense as to why babies wore loosely pinned flats. After the war a boom in babies ushered in new diaper designs, such as the infamous Boater by Marion Donovan. Better fabrics, snaps, and changing attitudes made diaper covers more common to wear, and contour shaped diapers like the B-52 changed the shape and style of how babies wore diapers. Later potty training (thank you Dr. Spock and home washing machines!) also made it important for diapers to be more comfortable and easier to walk in, again influencing their design and tighter fit. Today, even prefolds and flats fit trimmer thanks to the 1980’s invention of the Snappi, and are worn bikini cut style with new-fashioned folding methods under wrapping covers.