There was a time when there was a man … We do not really have to go that far away. However, as you think of it, the need for a baby diaper dates as far back as the history of mankind (and more realistically, the history of women. Adam and Eve had a need for a baby diaper, as much as Mr. and Mrs. Smith of today, no matter how pretty the Garden of Eden may have been. There are several documents that refer to the special clothing used for the babies in ancient times. Milkweed leaf wraps, animal skins and other creative natural resources, a far cry from today’s disposable diapers. The Egyptians, the Aztecs, the Romans, and many others, who left documentation of their day to day activities, mention its use. Its need covers all segments of the population, from princesses to beggars. The diaper was one of the very first items that distinguished man from animals! Infants have been “wrapped in swaddling bands” in many European societies since antiquity. Swaddling bands were strips of linen or wool that were wrapped tightly around each limb and then crosswise around the body (like many Yoga advocates still do in India). In Elizabethan times, babies were treated to a fresh diaper only every few days. Innuits, an Eskimo people, placed moss under sealskin
In some Native American tribes, mothers packed grass under a diaper cover made of rabbit skin, as it was done by the Incas in South America. In warmer tropical climates, babies were mostly naked and mothers tried to anticipate baby’s bowel movements to avoid any mess near the house. In the American West of the pioneering days, wet diapers were seldom washed – most of the times they just hung by the fireplace to dry and were then used again. As you can imagine, skin rash was a serious problem those days. In Europe, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution from 1820 onwards that the working people started taking pains to contain their baby’s waste more carefully, having acquired sufficient wealth to buy household furniture and the need to protect it.
By the late 1800’s infants in Europe and North America were wearing the progenitor of the modern diaper. A square or rectangle of linen, cotton flannel, or stockinet was folded into a rectangular shape and held in place with safety pins. “Diaper” was originally the term for an overall pattern of small repeated geometric shapes, and then a white cotton or linen fabric with such a pattern. So the first babies’ diapers were made from diaper fabric, meaning fabric with a repetitive pattern. The first mass made cloth diapers were introduced by Maria Allen in 1887 in the United States.
Mankind learned the ways to reduce the diaper rash only after there was a better understanding of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and was able to understood how to kill them, or at least how to control them. At the beginning of the 20th century, many concerned mothers started to use boiled water in order to reduce the common rash problem more effectively. Boiling a big pot full of diapers required great amounts of energy and time. Probably some readers in their 40’s, 50’s and older, may still remember the big steel pot used to boil the used diapers of our (younger) brothers or sisters, and then the “ceremonial” hanging of the wet diapers to allow them to dry in the sun. Younger readers have to watch old Disney cartoons to understand what I am talking about. (“Goofy the perfect father”, Disney, 1948)
The typical diaper used in the 40’s was a thick rectangular cloth made of cotton; this piece was folded using traditional teachings of “ones ancestors” (not a joke!). It was a beautiful tradition that grandmothers taught their daughters for their first grandchild. Of course, it was also routine to talk about how much the babies resembled their grandmothers. We better not argue about that, if you know what is best for the family. For a simple lesson on the art of diaper folding: diaper folding 101. However, this was unacceptable for the “industrial revolution babies” and the new evolving society based on the “American dream”.
During the World War II, the increase in number of working mothers brought the need for the “diaper service”. Fresh cotton diapers would be delivered on an as-needed basis, to moms tuckering out from building planes and tanks all day. As with many of the great inventions, it is not clear who can be credited as the “single inventor” of the disposable diaper as it evolved step by gradual step. Early forms of tissue-based disposable under-pads and diaper inserts were made available at the beginning of this decade in Sweden. The first disposable absorbent pad used as a diaper was probably the one made from unbleached creped cellulose tissue (held in rubber pants) in 1942 by Paulistróm in Sweden, perhaps because cotton had become a strategic material due to the war.
A few years later in 1946, in the United States, a Westport housewife named Marion Donovan invented the “Boater“, a waterproof covering for cloth diapers. Her first model of the disposable diaper was made of shower curtain plastic into which a conventional cloth diaper was inserted. Marion was granted four patents for her designs, including the use of plastic snaps that replaced the traditional and dangerous “safety pins”. Quite a clever woman, who also happened to be an attractive lady.
In 1947, George M. Schroder, working for the Textile Research Institute of the University of Chattanooga, Tennessee, US, was approached by the Henry Frede & Co. to create the first disposable diaper ever with disposable nonwoven fabric. The same year Valerie Hunter Gordon, a British mother, developed a two piece disposable diaper. According to an interesting story (not totally confirmed), Eastern airlines had so many complaints during the long transatlantic flights that it commissioned a project with Chicopee (J&J) to develop an efficient disposable diaper to help passengers traveling with small babies. The result was the CHUX disposable diapers, a rectangular one piece diaper first made in 1949. In 1950 Paulistrom launched a “roll diaper”, rolls of cellulose wadding inside a knitted mesh that consumers had to cut and fit into reusable panties.
The disposable diaper was a “luxury” item then, used only for those special occasions like vacation trips, visits to the parents or the doctor. It was not common to see a baby wearing a disposable diaper – maybe just as rare as finding an empty seat at the leading Broadway show when you do not have a reservation (you get the picture). The first “truly disposable” diapers were made using a very simple rectangular design. The absorbent core was made of several layers of tissue paper (15 to 25), the outside used a plastic film and no tapes were provided with the product. The total capacity of these diapers was estimated to be around 100 ml, so it provided a very limited service (a one time use). Its disposability, however, added a great value for the parents; it was immediately regarded as one of the great inventions. Believe it or not! (again).
For a complete Time-Line History of disposable diapers in the United States and the world, please visit: Time-Line
During the 50’s there was little change in terms of diaper design. During this decade Kendall, Parke-Davis and Playtex entered the market with simple diaper versions. The disposable diaper market share was very low due to the high unitary cost of the diaper and its low performance. Its use was limited to very few developed countries of the world. In this decade, Kendall and Parke-Davis entered the US market. In 1957, Molnlycke entered the market with a product made of paper pulp encapsulated in tissue and surrounded by a knitted net. t
The sanitary napkin, on the other hand, had a rapid growth in the European and North American markets. It was not until the end of this decade when Vic Mills, who worked for the Procter and Gamble company, invented “Pampers“, as he was looking for better products to use for his baby grandson (conceptualized in 1959 during a summer vacation trip). The diaper was, however, not launched into the market until 1961.
From the 60’s onwards, the disposable diaper evolved quickly as the industry learned the requirements of the mothers. Tissue, was replaced with pulp a decade after the first disposable sanitary napkins arrived in the markets. Using cellulose fibers instead of paper improved the performance of the diaper. With the Pampers, launched in the spring of 1961, the new baby diaper was a “smash hit”. With development of better nonwovens, softer top sheets made of rayon started transforming the baby diaper – it was offered in two sizes, medium and large. The diaper was made very thick in order to reduce leakage; some medium diapers had weights of 65 gm. and even more! The diaper did not have means for attachment since there were no lateral tapes included. This situation created a problem for the consumer since they needed to have tapes handy in order to use the diaper. For a while, the supermarkets and drug and department stores did not know where to stock Pampers. At the time, Pampers were found in the convenience section, the food aisle, the paper products section, and even in the drugs section. In 1966, Pampers launched a new C-fold design and by 1969 started a “third size”. A typical commercial diaper machine ran at speeds of 150 diapers per minute. The best diapers had overall leakage values of 8 to 10%.
70’s proved to be the baby boom explosion for the disposable diaper industry in developed countries and even in some other, less developed areas of the world. Competition between Procter & Gamble and Kimberly Clark to own the world diaper market resulted in quick diaper design improvements and lower prices to the consumer. World demand exceeded the production capacity for many years. Market penetration had an exponential increase in the US, Europe and Japan. In Latin America also many countries experienced this boom, including Mexico, Argentina and Chile. A new fastening system with lateral paper tapes was introduced as part of the improved convenience of the product. This new invention was introduced by Johnson & Johnson in 1970.
Improved folding of the diaper using the “Z fold” or “pre-folded” diaper concept, introduction of “hot melts” instead of cold adhesives for reduced “open times” that resulted in faster diaper manufacturing line speeds and of more options in terms of size expanded demand at a fast clip. Total absorbent capacity of the diaper increased steadily and diaper machines started running at the incredible speed of 250 diapers per minute.
Some comments started to appear from babies’ doctors complaining about the bulk of the absorbent diaper at the crotch and its effect on the babies’ developing bones. The shape of the diaper changed for a better fit, from the old “rectangular shape” to a more modern “hourglass shape”. In 1975, the hourglass shaped “Luvs” was first introduced in the US market.
Kimberly Clark introduced in 1976 its shaped Huggies diapers. Lateral elastomerics were used at the end of the decade by most producers in an attempt to improve the fit.
With the 80’s a new”re-engineered” diaper was born. Absormex started operations at the beginning of this decade in Monterrey Mexico in 1981 and Carlos Richer started working for Absormex in June 1984, a date to remember while on diaper history, at least for me!!
During 1981 and 1982, two companies launched into the US market what was claimed to be a “bio-degradable” diaper. Starch was added to the poly film in the extrusion process in order to produce bio-degradable films. The F.T.C. (Federal Trade Commission) forced the product out of the market since there was no scientific evidence to support the claims. The film fragmented into pieces with UV light but the molecular weight did not change enough and the product was declared to be not truly “bioactive”.
It was also agreed that the normal cycle for a diaper ends in a landfill (buried without light). For this reason, the F.T.C. forced the product out of the shelves after winning a well publicized trial.
The use of Elastomerics in 1983 improved the fit of the diaper. Elastics were used in the legs before but now they were added to the waist also. The nonwoven was changed from rayon to polypropylene thermal-bond, which provided a softer and more comfortable feel for the baby. A new tape system, called “target tape”, based on the use of two simultaneous lateral tapes instead of just one, was attempted to help reposition the diaper. This was a worldwide failure in the market and was abandoned a few years later in 1986. A frontal tape was first developed in Europe to allow the mother the convenience of being able to open and close the diaper as many times as needed without tearing the film. At the beginning of the decade an environmental movement attacked the industry, arguing the ecological problems created by the use of the disposable diaper. This was more evident in Europe and Canada and with less intensity in the US and Latin America.
The super-absorbent (SAP) was first introduced into the diaper in 1982 by Unicharm in Japan, following its use in sanitary napkins. It is rather amazing that it took so long for this material to be finally used in a diaper when it had been discovered so many years before. It was in 1966 when Billy Gene Harper, who worked for Dow Chemical, and Carlyle Harmon, who worked for J&J, filed their patent for the superabsorbent polymer. Even when Victor Mills is recognized as the father of the diaper, Harper and Harmon really should deserve similar recognition. With the SAP, a new generation of high performance diapers was possible. Not only the diapers became thinner but they also had improved retention performance which helped reduce leakage and diaper rash. Premium diapers with leakage below 2% became a reality at last. The average weight of a typical medium size diaper was reduced by about 50% from the weights used in the previous decade. This was just perfect to show the good intentions of the industry in terms of its interest in ecology; it also made good economic sense due to the reduced packaging cost. In addition, many studies were made to compare disposable diapers with cloth diapers, generating a debate that still continues today (read my F.A.Q. section). In Japan, the concept of “breathability” was introduced successfully in 1983, leading in some way the design effort, though the fact of the matter is that a wet diaper loses very little humidity because of this breathable feature (a diaper with 200 ml of urine loses less than 1% of its weight after 24 hours). But the gimmick is still around. The training diaper was also introduced in Japan for the very first time in 1989, which extended the use of diapers to larger babies, or young kids (3 to 4 years old).
In the 90’s, many new features were added to the baby diaper. SMS (spunbond-meltblown-spunbond) top-sheets were used and the cloth-like backsheet replaced the regular poly film in the higher end of the market. Mechanical tapes were introduced in the form of Velcro or other types of hook and loop fasteners. Leg cuffs made of SMS nonwovens helped reduce leakage on the legs of the babies; they were first used in diapers in 1991 after a polemic patent was cross licensed between P&G and KC. Elasticized mechanical tapes were developed too. In addition, the 1990s saw the beginning of a new technology with introduction of a curly fiber by Procter & Gamble, which pulled moisture into the core of the diaper and then recoiled back to absorb additional fluid. The superabsorbent used in the diapers was improved further by using a new surface cross linker; this helped reduce the “gel block” problem, a phenomenon which prevented liquids from moving when the absorbent was saturated with water. Many new “Bells and Whistles” like Aloe Vera, Germ protection, Skin conditioners, wetness indicators, “glow in the dark” frontal tapes, etc. etc. are being used as the need for product differentiation is becoming more important in ever maturing markets. In the US, baby diapers have a market penetration of 95%. Western Europe and Japan have similar numbers and Latin America has many variations with numbers varying between 15% and 75%. Mexico had a market penetration of 48% in 1995 and the figure has risen to 61% in 2006. A typical diaper line of the 90’s ran at speeds of 300 diapers per minute while some of the big players now have machines that can go above 1000 diapers per minute! The important point to note is that speed is not always the best answer when the cost of capital makes it difficult to justify; this is specially true when the cost of labor is not a significant part of the diaper cost. At the end of the decade the shape of the absorbent core is changing from a typical “T” shape to a “rectangular shape”, similar to the shape used in previous decades. A typical large diaper in Japan that contained 12 to 15 gm of SAP in 1995 now uses only 9 to 12 gm. The increased productivity of the small independent producers has added to the pressure on the big players who, in response, are aggressively defending their intellectual property. In the process, the industry is getting transformed into a “lawyers heaven”. The patent data (1976-2000) for the diaper industry consists of over 600 patents (US Patent and Trademark Office).
With an investment of $1.7 billion in year (2000), P&G is the 21st largest US-based and 52nd largest global investor in research and development (“Investing in R&D”, 2000). Kimberly-Clark has annual sales of more than $13 billion, with manufacturing facilities in forty countries and sales in more than 150. It is also the second largest household and personal care products company in the United States. Procter & Gamble diapers are now sold in more than 80 countries worldwide and have become a multi-billion dollar business (“Improving Health and Dryness for Babies”, 2000). After P&G marketed the original Pampers in 1961, Kimberly-Clark introduced Huggies diapers seventeen years later in 1978, soon after P&G’s patent rights on disposable diapers expired. Today Kimberly Clark is the second largest producer of disposable baby diapers in the world.
The clear trend for the future of the diaper industry 2000 and beyond is a thinner diaper, more comfortable for the baby and friendly to the environment.
On March 8, 2000, Absormex, a 100% Mexican owned company, launched the first bio-degradable diaper in the world, “Natural Baby Supreme”. This new diaper degrades even without being exposed to light or UV (this is not a starch based product). It results in a dramatic change in the molecular weight due to a chemical degradation process (-free radical, thermal and photo oxidation), to the point where the product becomes “bioactive”. The speed of this bio-degradation in the landfill is 200% faster than that of conventional diapers (instead of a few centuries, a few years!). The product, when exposed to the outside environment, fragments in less than a month. This is the first significant contribution of Mexico, to the history of the disposable diaper. With a large file of scientific evidence, and two patents pending, all claims printed on the bag have been proved and scientific reports will be published for the general public soon. Carlos Richer presented a paper at the Insight Conference (diaper industry’s largest technical seminar) last October 2000, you can read his presentation here: Insight 2000.
In 2001, Absormex launched “Earthpure” diapers that were a private label distributed by Amway in the United States and Canada . At this time, Absormex had to discontinue this diaper due to a very unfair law suit. The cost of defense was so high that we decided not to defend the concept in court (even when we knew it was an excellent product idea). According to the Federal Trade Comission, unless you are able to prove that the product will degrade in the landfill, you are taking a risk. Unfortunately there are many landfills that are not well managed – even a piece of paper will not bio-degrade in these conditions.
In 2003, P&G launched their Easy Ups training pants, taking as much as 20% share of the pants market in the United States. KC launched Huggies Convertibles, a baby diaper that is similar to training pants but has lateral sides with hook and loop. At the end of the year, Tyco tried to get back its lost pants sales by launching their new training pant made with Cellulose Acetate, a new “air laid” pad. It is still too early to conclude whether this product will be successful. This year Ontex purchased Hartmann’s diaper plants in Germany and France.
In June of 2004 Valor Brands, a joint venture with Grupo Mabesa in Mexico, took Mayer’s private label account from Tyco. Tyco had purchased Paragon a year before, a former partner of Mabesa.
In 2005 a new player started operations in Canada, Irving Personal Care. They started with a new training pant and a couple of Joa’s J5 high speed baby diaper machines in New Brunswick Canada. As an interesting event in 2005, superabsorbent producers could not keep up with demand due to lack of acrylic acid (a raw material used in the manufacture of SAP), generating a historic shortage that will not be balanced until the 3rd quarter of 2006 when more capacity is expected to become operational in China. This is one of the reasons why raw material prices are out of control and the diaper industry has been under a lot of pressure.
Market Trends for 2006: There will be more economical products focused on those areas of the world that continue to have a low disposable diaper consumption, like China, India, North Africa, Latin America and Russia. The reduced freight cost associated with compressed packaging is making many companies reduce the number of plant locations, into fewer but larger factories. The high cost of oil worldwide (a record high in 2005) has increased pressure on diaper manufacturers to improve productivity and diaper design in an effort to avoid price increases as the markets and the continued price wars do not allow higher raw material costs to be reflected in prices of the finished products.
Recent diaper sales volumes in the world and forecast of diaper sales for year 2025: The volume of diapers sold in the United States alone in year 2006 will be close to 18.6 billion units, around 20.4 billion units will be sold in Europe and 4.9 billion units will be sold in Mexico in 2006. It is reported that China has the largest incremental sales in comparison to last year. Many new diaper machines are being installed there. For a complete description of diaper sales and diaper sales expectations until the year 2025:
Market trends for 2007 and beyond: There are two very well defined trends for the disposable diapers. The absorbent core is being made with a higher tri dimensional basis weight gradient along the length of the pad, and second, diapers are being made with a reduced chassis width and with the addition of elastic lateral ears in order to reduce cost and improve fit at the same time. The learn more about future absorbent core trends please read my last article on this topic:
Please visit the following link if you want instructions on how to measure diaper performance: Diaper Performance. If you want a simplified version for elementary schools’ science fair projects, visit my FAQ section. If you believe there is something missing in my diaper history section, please let me know. This should be the best compilation of information about diapers on the Internet.
And finally, for a complete Time-Line History of disposable diapers in the United States and the world, please visit: Time-Line