What did babies use before diapers?

What Did Babies Use Before Modern Diapers? l How Our Ancestors Kept Their Babies Clean

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A History of These Baby Hygiene Essentials

As cute and endearing babies are, any mother with at least one child can tell you that these little critters can make a whole lot of mess. Babies are known to poop 5 to 10 times a day, and, for most mothers, diapers are just a fact of everyday life. They comprise at least half, if not most, of the expense of the early years of a child. This is partly why diapers are currently a multibillion-dollar industry. 

With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine that for much of human history, diapers were pretty much non-existent. Mothers either had to be creative with how they could carry their spontaneously popping babies around and, for the most part, babies were simply always naked. 

Now that people are beginning to question the necessity or sustainability of buying so many disposable diapers, let’s look at the history of diapers and how mothers handled their babies’ nature calls before diapers even existed. 

Old baby photo

The Early History of Diapers

For at least a few thousand years in early human history, the norm almost all around the world was to have the baby simply go commando all the time. Along with their babies, mothers would also carry around a small pot, usually made out of clay, for the baby to urinate and defecate in. 

In those days, a baby usually never left the arms of the mother or caretaker. When body signals told you that the baby was about to do business, you just set the clay pot down on the floor or table and held the baby over it. 

This method is still seen in some parts of the globe, particularly in places where people cannot afford the expense of diapers. There is also a growing trend in the west of parents using this method too, usually to cut back on waste and costs. This technique has come to be known as elimination communication.

Ancient Precursors to Diapers

Though stark naked babies and little chamber pots were the norms of much of human history, some parents still found ways to make life a little easier for themselves. Usually seen among cultures where the women had to work too, mothers got creative with dealing with their children’s doodies. 

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The Inuit cultures in Alaska, Greenland, Siberia, and Northern Canada were known to use sealskin and moss to cover their babies’ bottoms. This also helped insulate them from the frigid climate. The Native American tribes were also known to do the same with rabbit skin and packed grass. 

Other cultures in ancient times also found different ways to make their babies’ bathroom needs more portable. In many cases, their babies were wrapped with milkweed leaves, animal skins, moss, linens, and other natural resources. Oftentimes, these materials also helped protect them from the environment, and their natural properties prevented diseases from the spread of germs

Over time though, especially in Europe, the nobility would resort to the use of cloth.

Victorian Era Babies

The Use of Cloth Diapers

The first instance of cloth diapers being used in society was around the 1500s. In England, under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, triangle cotton or linen cloths were wrapped around the baby’s bottom to serve as diapers. Sadly though, because education concerning hygiene was very poor, these were rarely washed. Babies would have their wrappings for days before anyone would think to change them. And even when these “nappies” were removed, they would simply hang them up to dry without any kind of washing. 

It would take a while before parents and physicians made the connection between the unsanitary practices and the diseases that frequently afflicted infants in those days. 

It would not be until the 1800s though that the British began using the term diapers. The term originated in the middle ages though and often referred to the cloth and the pattern it was cut in rather to the function it served. 

The term would catch on in the British colonies in North America as the thing used specifically for catching the baby’s excrement. But in the UK, the term “nappies”, a diminutive of napkins, remains the more preferred term.

In 1880, a woman named Maria Allen began the first mass production of washable diapers. These diapers were highly reusable and often boiled in batches to be disinfected, washed, then sun-dried. In 1920, rubber and plastic pants were introduced to the market. Before, cloth diapers were often used in doubles to minimize leakages, but the introduction of these meant that diapers were becoming more and more convenient for the women who had to deal with them.

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Cloth reusable diapers would be the main form of diapers of centuries up until the 1960s when the first disposable diapers were released. Nowadays, cloth and linen diapers are used mainly by budget-conscious people who abhor spending hundreds of dollars a month on disposable diapers. It has also come to be an advocated alternative to disposable diapers because of their negative impact on the environment and waste. 

The Invention of the Disposable Diaper

Disposable diapers were invented as an answer to the needs of women during World War II. As their husbands were off fighting, the women began working and, thus, needed something to handle their babies’ frequent bowel movements quickly and efficiently. 

The first known disposable diaper invention was in Sweden. These were simple tissue pads held up by a couple of rubber bands. Early into the history of disposable diapers, they were seen as a luxury good that was used by the wealthy who traveled a lot. 

The early precursors to the disposable diapers we know and use today include:

· In 1947, George M. Schroder was asked to create a disposable diaper out of nonwoven fabric.

· In 1947, Valerie Hunter Gordon developed a 2-piece disposable diaper.

· In 1949, Eastern Airlines developed a disposable diaper for long flights, which became known as CHUX.

· In 1950, disposable cellulose wadding inside of a knitted mesh came in a long roll. Parents would cut the material to fit the baby.

It would not be until the 1960’s that disposable diapers superseded cloth diapers as the prepared diapers for parents. A pioneer in this was Vic Mills, an employee of Procter & Gamble at the time, who would come to develop and release the diaper brand Pampers in 1961. Part of the reason for its meteoric success was the use of cellulose fibers which made the diapers more absorbent than cloth. This made Pampers an immediate hit on the market and saw it dominate the landscape for a few years. 

It would not take too long though before Huggies and Johnson and Johnson threw their hat into the ring. The companies were all competing with each other for market share, which led to many innovations in the way diapers were made. 

With each new release, disposable diapers were becoming more absorbent, less likely to leak, and include things like Aloe Vera, germ protection, skin conditioners, wetness indicators, and later, even biodegradable materials.

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This was very good for parents who now have a plethora of diaper options, good for business as the disposable diaper industry grew to multi-billion dollar levels, but bad for the environment as the waste caused by disposable diapers grew by metric tons each year. 

Victorian Era Babies

The Resurgence of Cloth/Reusable Diapers

Despite cloth diapers taking a backseat to disposable, improvements to them were still being made over the decades. Reusable diapers have become waterproof, better fitting, and just as absorbent as their disposable counterparts. And though the 70s and 80s saw the cloth diaper market reduced to a shadow of its former self, the recent push towards sustainability and reusable products have breathed new life into the industry. 

Parents are indeed starting to see the benefits both environmentally and budget-wise of using reusable cloth diapers. Though, it might be worth noting that some researchers believe that the amount of water used to clean the diapers offsets the reduction of waste, thus not making it a sustainable option either. This is still up for debate though, and cloth diapers are still typically seen as the greener option. 


And that is the history of diapers. No matter what shape or form they take, there is no denying that at this point, diapers are a staple for any parent with a baby. On top of that, diapers are a staple for many adults and animals too. The industry for them is as large as it’s ever been, and diapers are not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Beginning as a luxury that only those with the resources can afford, today the only question for parents now is what type of diaper they would prefer to raise their child with. Diapers have entrenched themselves into being part of our infants’ hygienic practice and, though they are relatively new to humans in the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to imagine life and babies without them.

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