Why the loose diapers? An explanation of vintage diapering techniques.

Why the loose diaper? www.dirtydiaperlaundry.com explains why diapers were worn loosely by babies in old photographs.

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?

Newborn in a loosely pinned flat, presumed date pre-1960.
Newborn in a loosely pinned flat, presumed date pre-1960.

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.

From a Maytag advertisement published in TIME, 1944
From a Maytag advertisement published in TIME, 1944

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.

Illustration from parenting manual in 1956 to show infant toilet training techniques
Illustration from parenting manual in 1938 to show infant toilet training techniques


“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,’ 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.

Advertisement for new Riegel flats, 1950's.
Advertisement for new Riegel flats, 1950’s.

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.

Twin boys in Diaper Derby, NJ, 1944
Notice the looseness around the stomach- likely from stretch and wear. Image 1944, 6th Annual Diaper Derby.

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)

The Free Lance-Star, excerpt from advice column. 1942
The Free Lance-Star, excerpt from advice column. 1942

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.

The new contour shaped diapers started appearing in the late 40's and early 50's. Photo from 1948.
The new contour shaped diapers started appearing in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Photo from 1948.

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.

The images used in this post are all from the personal collection of Kim Rosas and may not be copied or republished in any way.  
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  • Natalie

    Fascinating! I always thought older generations were resistant to modern cloth diapering ventures because theirs were less convenient – not that the idea of an effective, constantly-applied diaper was distasteful.

  • Kim

    I’m going to go ahead and be a Debbie Downer. I wish there had been a little warning or trigger note on this for those of us that are a little sensitive… “such as soapsticks hand carved to resemble an enema of today, were inserted into the rectum if digital rectal pressure didn’t produce results. (The Practical Care of the Baby, 1903) The methods were not at all gentle, some babies were even strapped to their pierced chair (potty) as long as it took for a movement to be made.” Infants strapped to a chair with an enema shaped object forced into their rectum until they have a bowel movement. I know many people will find this interesting…For me, it’s stirred up all kinds of bad feelings, and I wish I hadn’t opened the link 🙁

    • Michelle Bowen-Ziecheck

      If it makes you feel any better, those extreme measures were always the exception, rather than the rule.

  • Sara Davidson

    Wow! That’s pretty interesting. I’m glad for the changes… I have no interest in trying to hold my child over a toilet 12 times a day.

    • Judy Peterson

      I wish I had known about this. A little more work at the beginning of my five babies’ lives would have saved me a lot of time and grief later. I would have enjoyed being with my baby to hold her/him over a toilet 12 times a day.

      • I could see that. You had a hard time potty training? I wanted to do elimination communication with my first but after a few tried I gave up.

      • Judy Peterson

        And I imagine it gets even harder when there are older siblings to deal with. Still, I wish I had not been brainwashed by Dr. Spock, who later changed his views. There was no information highway back then, so we were left to the whims of the “experts.”

        It does take commitment, that’s true. But it seems to require no less hassle or commitment than having five children in Pull-Ups at night (up to six years old in some cases for me). They simply got used to eliminating whenever they felt like it and became used to being soiled and wet.

        Perhaps there is still some element of maturity that plays a part in all of this, but I can’t help but think that I could have reached my goals a lot sooner if I had not relied on disposable, COMFORTABLE diapers for so long. Why get potty trained when you are so comfortable eliminating in a diaper, right?

        Anyway, I am glad that today there is so much more information and that mother’s have better choices.

    • c.fster.nana

      I know, right! My ex MIL said all 4 of her children were potty trained by the time they were 1 yr old. I used to just ignore that and now I’m thinking maybe she did, but really she was the one that was ‘trained’!

    • Michelle Bowen-Ziecheck

      I mean… instead of changing diapers 12x/day (as you easily can in cloth, with a newborn)? It takes a about 2 minutes, and certainly didn’t lessen my “enjoyment” of my baby. *shrug*

  • Tonia Neal Johnson

    That makes total sense! It also makes me feel super lazy. Haha!

  • Leigh

    I had wondered about this. The vintage folds do still work pretty well snugged up.

  • Amanda Gist

    Very cool article! I remember seeing an old wooden potty chair with straps and wondering why the heck they were there.

  • Makes sense to me! Cloth diapers and ‘elimination communication’ are a perfect combo. 🙂 My babies were pooping exclusively on the potty/toilet well before a year old, leaving only pee diapers to deal with. (My oldest was out of diapers altogether before his 2nd birthday. My second child is almost 2 now and not quite there.)

    • Michelle Bowen-Ziecheck

      Yep! And just to add– I feel like I did cloth/EC BECAUSE I was “lazy.” Mine was out of diapers a little after a year (and into mostly-waterproof training pants). She had 1 pee accident/week until 21 months (no poop accidents), and was totally done by then. And I wasn’t taking her on a schedule, she told me when she needed to go. After she turned one, it was easy street– whereas the average American mother has another 2 years in diapers. Again, I’m too lazy for that.

  • Lois Wattis

    What an interesting article. I’m 60 years old and this is all very familiar to me. I had my bubs in the 70’s (before disposables took over babyworld) and used flannelette and towelling flats, plus “Dr Flannel” woolen covers which had press studs for closures. These were very effective but it was always important to change bub’s nappy as soon as it was wet or soiled. I can honestly say none of my 3 bubs ever had nappy rash, and I felt great pride each time I pinned a line full of soft white clean nappies out in the sunshine. It’s also interesting to read about the practice of “holding baby out” to wee or poo to avoid some of the washing. This concept is still around. African women practice “elimination communication” with their mostly bare-bottomed babies and some modern “alternate” parents also do a similar type of no-diaper daytime routine described in detail in Dr Sarah Buckley’s book “Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering”. So, everything old is new again! I have contributed to preserving the lost art of folding traditional square nappies/diapers via YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvsIU3I29Q8 which is part of my suite of resources for new parents. Visit http://www.newbaby101.com.au to find out more about “New Baby 101 – A Midwife’s Guide for New Parents” book, smartphone app and “how to” videos. Cheers, Lois

  • Nancy

    We have three grown daughters and when they were babies,i used cloth diapers and rubberpants on all three of them and they worked well.Then unfortunately,when the oldest daughter started puberty around age 12,she started wetting the bed,so i put her back into cloth diapers and rubberpants at night! Then,a year later,daughter number 2 started bedwetting,so now i had two of the three in diapers and rubberpants at night.Then number 3 also started bedwetting and i was beside my self with all three of them in cloth diapers and rubberpants at night!They were all a little over a year apart,so they were 14,13 and 12 and i was washing their cloth diapers and the rubberpants every two or three days! It was quite an experience putting the three of them into their diapers and rubberpants every night at bedtime.

    • Carol

      Currently have 8 and 6 year old bedwetters who wear cloth diapers and plastic pants to bed. They do work. There are no leaks.