More than an Inventor for Mothers

Today we celebrate a woman who invented a practical and helpful device for moms and babies, the Boater. But Marion Donovan was more than an inventor for mothers.

Circa 1950s image of two babies in a wooden playpen wearing nothing but cloth diapers and no way to stay dry--Marion Donovan saw a need but she was more than an inventor for mothers
Babies in cloth diapers
FOTO:FORTEPAN / UVATERV, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Born with the Right Genes

Her father and uncle were inventors, so it’s no surprise that Marion Donovan also becomes an inventor. Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1917, Marion’s first invention was a tooth powder to improve dental hygiene. She created it while in elementary school.

She attended Rosemont College in Pennsylvania and in 1939 received her B.A. In English.

A Frustrated Mother

Photo of diapers hanging on the laundry line outside--Marion Donovan saw a need but she was more than an inventor for mothers
C. K. Klose, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A post-World War II homemaker, Marion Donovan was frustrated. Her youngest was still in diapers. Cloth diapers required frequent changing and bathing of the baby and laundry sheets and other clothing. 

Rubber baby pants were available. Yes, rubber. They were supposed to keep the moisture of wastes contained inside the diaper and the pants. Seepage was common. And the rubber and elastic legs pinched the baby’s skin. And, well, the rubber didn’t allow the baby’s bottom to dry. Chafing and diaper rashes caused terrible discomfort for the baby. The problem was so severe, doctors urged parents not to use rubber pants.

Marion sewed something different for her baby. Legend has it she started with a piece of her bathroom shower curtain.

The Boater

She spent three years perfecting her design. To get the right sizes, she measured her baby, her neighbors’ babies, and babies at Bellevue Hospital. 

Marion used nylon instead of rubber and snaps instead of diaper pins. She created waterproof baby pants that didn’t cause rashes. She called it the boater. According to women-inventors.com, she thought it looked like a boat.

Designed to hold the diaper inside the waterproof covering, it kept babies and sheets dry more often. A row of three snaps above the leg allowed parents to adjust the covering for the baby’s growth.

Manufacturing the Boater

No manufacturer at the time would consider her invention. 

I went to all the big names that you could think of and they said, ‘we don’t need it—no woman has asked us for that…

Marion Donovan

Marion filed for a patent and partnered with a lingerie manufacturer. 

Her product did not cause rashes. Soon doctors and baby care manuals recommended the Boater.

In 1949, the Boater went on sale at Saks Fifth Avenue. It was an immediate success.

Patent Granted, Next Project Please

Granted a patent in 1951, she sold her company and patents for $1,000,000.

Next, she designed a fully disposable diaper to insert in the Boater. Paper manufacturers didn’t see the market for it. 

In 1961, Victor Mills drew upon Donovan’s invention to create Pampers®.

image of pampers diapers which were derived from Marion Donovan's patented paper diapers

Marion didn’t limit herself to mother’s concerns in her inventions, the men of her time pigeon-holed her. They said she created women’s “essentials.”

She invented many useful things like a facial tissue box, a towel dispenser, closet organizer, and more. She filed and received 20 patents in her lifetime. Read more about Marion on the Smithsonian website where her family donated her papers.

At 41 she earned a degree in architecture from Yale. She designed her own house in Connecticut.

Marion Donovan died at 81 in 1998. Few people know of her. Yet many of us use her inventions or improved variations of her inventions.

More than an Inventor for Mothers

She saw a need for her own child and helped millions of children and families. Some people will debate the need for disposable diapers, but comfortable, waterproof diapers were necessary for babies and parents. 

For those of you who wonder, this is not a political statement. No matter which party or person is in the White House or the Congress—we were all babies. Most of us have benefited from this woman’s inventions.

Marion Donovan was more than an inventor for mothers and so much more. Did you enjoy learning about this strong woman? Please let me know in the comments below.

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