All mothers owe this woman a debt of gratitude

The woman who invented the disposable diaper (known as a ‘nappy’ in England) has died.  The Telegraph reports:

Valerie Hunter Gordon, who has died aged 94, helped to deliver mothers from the daily drudgery of mangle, washing line and ironing board by inventing the first disposable nappy system.

In 1947 Valerie, the wife of an Army officer, was living in Camberley, Surrey, and expecting her third child. She was not looking forward to the prospect of washing, ironing and drying the traditional towelling nappies which were all that were available at the time.

“I just didn’t want to wash them,” she told an interviewer last year. “You had to iron them as well. It was awful labour. I was amazed you couldn’t buy a disposable version. I enquired of the US and you couldn’t buy them there. It was extraordinary.”

So she decided she had better do something about it herself.

After a certain amount of trial and error (initially she used old nylon parachutes, of which there were many spare after the war), and drawing on her considerable needlework skills, she came up with a pair of adjustable PVC waterproof pants fastened with poppers, with a cord around the waist, which could be wiped clean, or washed and bleached. Into these she slipped a pad of cellulose wadding with a thin layer of cotton wool next to the baby’s skin to prevent soreness. The waterproof pants prevented leakage and were shaped to ensure that the pad remained in position without safety pins.

Unlike modern all-in-one disposable nappies, Valerie’s design meant that only the biodegradable dirty pads were disposed of, while the waterproof pants could be rinsed and used again. This  system created very little permanent waste; it also significantly reduced the water and electricity consumption associated with washing cotton nappies.

The nappies were a huge success on her baby son Nigel and she soon began taking orders from the wives of other senior officers at Staff College in Camberley.

“My husband used to cut out the pads on the floor of the attic when he came home from work and I used to run them up with my mother’s old sewing machine… I would go out for tea with the wives and babies, and they would say, ‘Oh Valerie, wouldn’t you make one for me?’ It became a full-time job. It was more hard work than washing the damn things.”

There’s more at the link.

I’m old enough to remember my mother laundering diapers for my two younger sisters.  She had an old washing machine with a mangle above the tub, rather like this one.

She’d soak the diapers in a pail to remove ‘solids’, then wash them, then feed them through the mangle into a basin at the rear filled with clean water to rinse them.  Once rinsed, they were ‘mangled’ once more before being hung out to dry.  It was a big job, and she had to repeat it (sometimes with the help of a domestic servant, which was fairly common in South Africa in those years) several times a week (particularly when the girls got diarrhea).

She didn’t use disposable diapers because they were more expensive, in those days, than the regular variety, and our household budget was fairly tight.  She sometimes complained to me, when I was older, that the price dropped just too late to make her life easier!



  1. My mother accused us of 'cheating' when we used disposables, rather than washing diapers when the girls were babies… Sigh…

  2. Heh.

    Actually all-in-one disposables still are more expensive overall than reusable diapers, and the washing has gotten a lot easier and cheaper (what with the much better efficiency and reduced water consumption and all) with the right kind of household appliances…

    The relative total cost of reusables comes out even better if you proceed to have more children after the first.

    Too bad that the original type with the disposable/biodegradable absorbent wadding and reusable pants isn't generally available anymore, would be interesting to run a comparison (economical _and_ ecological – was the biodegradability good enough for the home compost?) between all three…

  3. I remember Mom's ringer-washer and how to 'properly' hang clothes on the line. The winter my youngest sister was a baby was very wet so Mother spent a lot of time at the laundry-mat drying diapers. Dad believed everyone should be at the dinner table so he bought a gas dryer. My sister was in her thirties before that drier gave up the ghost.

    It was definitely cheaper in the late 70s to wash diapers than use disposables. It was a little over a thousand for the price of cloth diapers, soap, water and electricity for 2 years. The cost of disposables was something like 3 or 4 thousand for the same time period.

    1. Oh dear! I didn't know…well, tell her it's brilliant! Darn, it never occurred to me to check for plagiarism. :-/

    2. And the original is even better! It has links and everything! I can't understand how or why someone would just…steal another person's words like that. It really…I just don't get it. I saw she let him know that she was aware of his theft (and he had a dead-stupid smartass response, of course), and I removed my "like" on "his" post. I was considering chiming in to give him a piece of my mind, but I decided to sleep on it, heh. I have precious little mind to waste, so every decision to give away a piece of it must be carefully considered. *grin*

  4. The story is great but I find the difference in terminology amusing.

    Here its a wringer, for you its a mangle.

    I have it figured that here we call it by what its supposed to do, it wrings the water out of clothing. You guys call by what it does if it gets ahold of something its not, it will mangle that finger.

    Here we have a phrase "tit in a wringer" is there a similar phrase from your home? "Tit in a mangle?"

  5. That mangle versus wringer thing.

    I like ours better. Gives rise to the comment "I ain't had this much fun since Granny caught her tit in the wringer."


  6. Well I missed his response because the post was pulled shortly thereafter. Thank you for letting me know!
    Very interesting about the diapers. We considered going with cloth when ours was small, but we soon thought better of the idea.

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