Marion Donovan: Disposable Diapers. Unsung Hero Was Patent Holder of Disposable Diapers and Covers.
Although not the best known inventor, Indiana native Marion Donovan held the first patent for disposable diapers and invented the first reusable diaper cover.
While the name Marion Donovan is not a household word, mothers everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to her for patenting the first disposable diaper and reusable diaper cover.
As a child in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Marion (nee O’Brien in 1917) spent most of her childhood in her father and uncle’s manufacturing plant, where the “South Bend lathe” (an industrial lathe used for grinding gun barrels and automobile gears) was invented. After graduating from college in 1939 with a degree in English Literature, she worked as an assistant beauty editor at Vogue but gave up her position when she married James Donovan and moved to Westport, Connecticut.
After World War II, Marion was a housewife and young mother struggling with a chore that all mother’s suffered through: constantly changing soiled diapers, sheets and baby clothes. In exasperation, she sat down and developed a leak-proof diaper cover sewn from a shower curtain. That day in 1946 marked a turning point in diaper history. This reusable cover would keep baby’s clothes (and bedclothes) dry but didn’t cause chafing or diaper rash like other available diaper covers. Marion’s invention, called “the Boater”, was further improved with metal and plastic snaps which removed the hazardous safety pins used in most cloth diapers.
Oddly, she found no takers among the manufacturers that she marketed her creation to. However, other mother’s obviously realized the value of her product when it became an instant hit at Saks Fifth Avenue after it’s debut in 1949. Marion obtained a patent for the diaper cover in 1951 and promptly sold it to the Keko Corporation for 1 million dollars.
She soon developed a fully disposable paper diaper that kept the moisture away from baby’s skin, but again found no taker among paper manufacturers. Fully disposable diapers would not become popular until 1961, when Victor Mills developed Pampers for Proctor and Gamble.
Undeterred, Marion went on to earn an Architecture degree from Yale University in 1958. In addition to building her own house in 1980, she obtained 20 patents over the course of her life. Among her patents are: improvements to dental floss; a multi-garment compact hanger; a mechanism designed to help women zip up dresses; and a soap dish that drains directly into the sink.
Her death in 1998 helped to shed some light on the advances she made, but Marion is still largely an unsung hero, at least to mother’s with small children.