Insight - 08/07/23

Design Object Series N. 006

2 min

By Meghan Day

Marion Donovan and the Disposable Diaper

In our Design Object Series we highlight iconic objects designed by women. Thousands of objects that you use and appreciate everyday…surprise! Women designed them! Many of the contributions of women to design have been obscured if not erased throughout history. We want to do our part to counteract this effect by celebrating the women behind a range of objects that you’re sure to recognize. In this issue we salute Marion Donovan. Donovan’s determination and ingenuity led her to revolutionize the infant care industry with her most significant invention—the disposable diaper. 

Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1917, Marion O’Brien grew up immersed in a world of machinery and invention. Her mother passed away when she was seven, leaving her with her father, an engineer and inventor. She moved east for college and eventually married James Donovan, settling down in Westport, Connecticut to raise a family. 

In the 1940s cloth diapers were standard, often covered in rubber pants. Donovan was dissatisfied with the system. She was endlessly changing wet crib sheets, and the rubber pants caused rashes. In 1946 she developed her own reusable, leak-proof diaper cover, sewing it at home out of shower curtains. Instead of safety pins, her design used metal snaps. This design, called the “Boater,” led to a version made with nylon parachute cloth with place to insert an absorbent diaper panel. 

Innovating on Innovation

In 1949, the diaper covers made their grand debut at New York’s prestigious Saks Fifth Avenue, where they were an immediate hit. In 1951, Marion Donovan’s patent for the diaper cover was granted. Despite her invention’s success, she didn’t stop there. Donovan embarked on an even more significant innovation—the disposable paper diaper. Designing such a diaper proved to be a challenge. The material needed to efficiently wick moisture away from the baby’s skin to prevent rashes, not just absorb and retain it.

After much experimentation, she developed a composition of sturdy, absorbent paper that met the demanding requirements of a diaper. The pioneering idea faced rejection from major U.S. paper companies, who dismissed it as unnecessary and impractical. It would be ten years before Victor Mills, the creator of Pampers, seized upon her idea and brought disposable diapers to the mass market.

Marion Donovan's "Diaper Wrap," patent illlustration
Marion Donovan’s “Diaper Wrap,” patented June 12, 1951.

Marion Donovan’s creative genius extended beyond her groundbreaking diaper inventions. Throughout her career, she accumulated over a dozen patents and worked as a product development consultant. Like so many other women design pioneers, it wasn’t until her passing in 1998 that she received the recognition she deserved. Although Marion Donovan’s name may not be instantly recognizable, parents worldwide owe her a debt of gratitude for the convenience and comfort her inventions have brought to their lives. Donovan’s journey as an inventor demonstrates the power of persistence and the ability of design to challenge societal norms. 

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