Cloth diapering is so prevalent on places like Hellobee that I didn’t think of it as one of those “alternative” decisions, but we’re learning that outside of pregnancy boards, cloth diapers are still kind of weird. I thought a little research was in order to understand the evolution of the modern cloth diaper, so here’s a timeline that covers the highlights of diapering.

History of the Diaper

1300s: American Indians, specifically the Inuit, used layers of moss tucked inside a sealskin cover. I can imagine it was absorbent and waterproof!

1400s: England – Diapers were only changed every few days. Talk about a recipe for diaper rash.

1800s: United States – On the frontier, pioneer women rarely washed wet cloth diapers. Instead, they just hung them to dry, and then reused them. That’s one way to save time. Wonder what would happen if I employed the same strategy?

1860s: United States – Some mothers may have used safety pins, but straight pins were still prevalent for fastening diapers. Wool soakers, tight wool pants or shorts worn over diapers, were commonly used to keep clothing dry.


1887: United States – Modern cloth diapers are invented, and Maria Allen begins the first mass production. Squares of linen or flannel are folded into a triangle and held in place with a safety pin. Around this period mothers also started boiling dirty diapers to sanitize them before reuse.

Once diapers were washed on a regular basis, manufacturers began targeting laundry soap specifically for the purpose, as seen in this 1925 advertisement for Lux laundry soap.
Image via Duke University Digital Collections

1940s: United States – Diaper services came about during WWII because so many women were employed outside the home, which meant they had less time to launder dirty diapers.

A husband and wife fold cloth diapers in the bedroom of their Washington, DC home in 1943. 
Image via Library of Congress.

1946: United States – Marion Donovan, a Connecticut housewife, invents the “boater” – a prototype model of a diaper cover crafted from a plastic shower curtain. She’s awarded four different patents, including one for the use of plastic snaps.

Chux diapers, produced by Johnson and Johnson, were the first disposable diapers available, as seen in this advertisement from the 1950s.
Image via Ebay seller

1949: United States – Johnson and Johnson introduces the first truly disposable diaper, marketed under the brand name “Chux.”

Although disposables began to appear, they hadn’t yet solved the problem of diaper rash, as evidenced by the 1957 advertisement for Mexsana Medicated Family Powder. 
Image via Duke University Digital Collections

1950s-1980s: United States – Stiff competition between Procter & Gamble’s Pampers and Kimberly Clark’s Huggies resulted in lower disposable prices and increased innovations, including the development of an hourglass shape to reduce bulk, tabs that could be refastened, and the elastic waist.

Modern Huggies diapers tout innovations like a special fit and flexible construction.
Image via Huggies

1984: United States – Sodium polyacrylate , a superabsorbent polymer is introduced. The polymer is revolutionary because it virtually eliminates diaper rash, and decreases leak rates from 10% to 1%. It also makes diapers much cheaper, decreasing shipping costs because boxes filled with the product become smaller, and a larger amount can fit in each tractor trailer.

2000-2005: United States – Cloth diapering begins to regain popularity. Major brands like FuzziBunz were introduced to the market.

BumGenius, a line of diapers produced by Cotton Babies, appeared in the first retail store in 2006.
Image via BumGenius

2006: BumGenius introduces their one size cloth diapers with stretchy tabs.

2007: The new gDiapers, a flushable disposable diaper, continue to grow in popularity, though some concerns begin to develop in wastewater treatment plants about the actual biodegradability of the diapers.

Diapers have clearly undergone evolution in the last two hundred years. I’m awfully glad I won’t be washing cloth diapers by hand. Even though we plan to cloth diaper, it’s nice to know there are other options available.

Do you cloth diaper or use disposables? Have you found a big advantage of one over another?