Disposable Diapers Are Introduced to U.S. Market Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Disposable diapers proved to be a profitable and convenient product but caused environmental concerns over a literal mountain of seemingly permanent waste.

Summary of Event

Prior to 1961, for the vast majority of American parents, changing a baby’s diapers meant using pins and cotton cloth diapers. In 1950, though, Marion Donovan Butler had introduced the idea of the boater, a cloth diaper covered by a plastic outer covering, and other later innovations. When Procter & Gamble Procter & Gamble Company[Procter and Gamble Company] introduced its new disposable line of diapers called Pampers Pampers in 1961, a diaper revolution began. Some disposable diapers existed prior to Pampers’ introduction, but less than 1 percent of families with infants used these products. Diapers, disposable Pollution;United States [kw]Disposable Diapers Are Introduced to U.S. Market (Early 1961) [kw]Diapers Are Introduced to U.S. Market, Disposable (Early 1961) [kw]U.S. Market, Disposable Diapers Are Introduced to (Early 1961) Diapers, disposable Pollution;United States [g]North America;Early 1961: Disposable Diapers Are Introduced to U.S. Market[06720] [g]United States;Early 1961: Disposable Diapers Are Introduced to U.S. Market[06720] [c]Inventions;Early 1961: Disposable Diapers Are Introduced to U.S. Market[06720] [c]Manufacturing and industry;Early 1961: Disposable Diapers Are Introduced to U.S. Market[06720] [c]Environmental issues;Early 1961: Disposable Diapers Are Introduced to U.S. Market[06720] [c]Business and labor;Early 1961: Disposable Diapers Are Introduced to U.S. Market[06720] [c]Women’s issues;Early 1961: Disposable Diapers Are Introduced to U.S. Market[06720] Butler, Marion Donovan Duncan, Bob Mills, Vic

Some relief for the baby-boom parents came with an increase in the number of diaper-service companies in the postwar era. These companies delivered a fresh supply of clean cloth diapers to the doorstep and took away the soiled diapers to be washed. This service was especially convenient given that automatic clothes dryers were still not commonplace in the home until the mid-1950’s. It was from this method that the idea of mass-marketed disposable diapers would emerge.

Vic Mills worked as director of exploratory development for Procter & Gamble (P&G), based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Early in 1956, P&G purchased Charmin Paper Mills Charmin Paper Mills and entered the papermaking market. One weekend, Mills was caring for his newborn grandchild. Recognizing the obvious drawbacks of cloth diapers, Mills returned to P&G with a personal and business-minded motive for improving on diapering.

While Mills and his department worked on product development, the P&G marketing department gathered information about the best way to market the diapers. P&G researched population demographics, birthrates, and information on number of diaper changes per day, types of changes, and other details of the diapering process. In 1957, Mills turned the project over to Bob Duncan, who was assigned to head full-time research and development. Initial ideas included putting an absorbent pad into plastic pants, but these pads had very poor results. Besides objecting to a high rate of leakage, parents complained of rashes on their babies’ bottoms from the heat generated by the plastic pants.

Rochester, New York, was chosen as the second major test site in 1959. There, some thirty-seven thousand prototype diapers were tested. Composed of an absorbent pad attached to an outer plastic layer, some of the diapers included a tape-on system. Testers, however, still preferred a pin-on diaper. With minor changes from the Rochester test-market, P&G tested its new “highly sanitary” and “flushable” diaper in Peoria, Illinois, in early 1961. The diaper was a success as a product, but parents were unwilling to pay the 10 cent per diaper price. After six more test-markets, P&G lowered the price to 6 cents per diaper, and the disposable diaper market was born. P&G began marketing Pampers with a trademark baby’s face on the product’s cardboard package.

Disposable diapers represented a new product category for P&G. Production required new types of machinery and new innovations in paper manufacturing. Throughout the early years, P&G worked to improve the plastic sheet cover, the absorbent materials, and the porous sheet that helped keep infants dry. Pampers proved to be a quality product, and demand started to increase. By 1970, Pampers were sold in seventy-five countries, were manufactured in twenty-two countries, and represented 60 percent of the disposable-diaper market.

While Pampers seemingly cornered the disposable-diaper market, competitors, notably Kimberly-Clark Kimberly-Clark[Kimberly Clark] , worked to break into the diaper business. Founded in 1872, Kimberly-Clark had pioneered the development of tissue paper from creped cellulose in 1914. Products such as Kotex in 1920 and Kleenex in 1924 resulted from these efforts. It was not until 1968 that Kimberly-Clark made a bid for diaper dollars. Kimberly-Clark introduced Kimbies Kimbies , the first diaper to use fluff pulp for absorbency and the first to use a tape closure. Kimbies became the first major competitor for Pampers, and P&G quickly made advances to incorporate the qualities consumers found likable in Kimbies. Able to capture only 5 percent of the market, Kimbies were eventually forced out of the market.

By 1979, disposable diapers represented a $1 billion business. It was in the 1980’s, however, that the diaper market exploded. Disposable diapers became firmly entrenched in American life. By 1985, 98 percent of U.S. families with infants were using disposable diapers. This percentage, however, started to fall in the late 1980’s, as environmental issues threatened the disposable-diaper market.


Disposable diapers represented a time-saving, convenient change for families. The pins and pails were replaced by tape, boxes, trash bags, and the ease of simply throwing away the diaper. At first, these new diapers did not hurt the cloth-diaper business. Stay-at-home mothers were willing to continue to utilize the diaper services and would often only use disposables when traveling. As technology worked to improve the disposables, however, the cloth-diaper business declined sharply as more families switched to disposable diapers.

Despite technological improvements and a growing business, the disposable-diaper market became increasingly controversial beginning in the late 1980’s. Environmental groups, consumers, and the government began taking a closer look at the disposable diaper industry. Spurred on by the dramatic drop in business, cloth-diaper manufacturers and diaper services began questioning the environmental impact of disposables. A family’s choice of diaper became a test of its commitment to the environment.

The debate centered on the environmental impact of diaper production and disposal. In the late 1980’s, as landfill space was dwindling, issues such as convenience, disposability, and wastefulness came to the forefront and were debated in the news, in the U.S. Congress, and in homes. Critics charged that the United States was a wasteful society and to many, disposable diapers represented the worst evil.

The disposable-diaper industry responded to the concerns with a strong commitment to study and reduce the environmental impact of diapers. Companies quickly re-engineered diapers to follow the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy of source reduction.

Declining landfill space prompted more than twenty state legislatures to consider bans, taxes, or warning labels on disposable diapers in 1990 and led to several studies to examine the issue. A study by archaeologist William Rathje and the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project in the early 1990’s concluded, for example, that disposable diapers represented between only 0.5 and 1.8 percent of landfill space (compared to paper’s 40 percent). By the early 1990’s, the disposable diaper had become 80 percent compostable.

Again, the major manufacturers responded to the concerns with production and disposal changes. U.S. chemists in 1971 had already begun researching means to limit the lifetime of plastics. Diaper manufacturers furthered that cause in the late 1980’s by adding research time and money to develop durable yet recyclable or biodegradable outer layers.

By the early 1990’s, disposable-diaper manufacturers were promoting new diaper lines that were 50 percent thinner, used less source materials, and took up less landfill space. Researchers were still working on methods to biodegrade or easily recycle disposables. Many researchers reluctantly concluded that the best diapering option would vary from community to community depending upon available landfill space for disposables versus sufficient waste supplies and sewage systems to handle cloth-diaper washings. Diapers, disposable Pollution;United States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blumberg, Louis, and Robert Gottlieb. War on Waste: Can America Win Its Battle with Garbage? Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1989. A history and sociology of twentieth century waste management in the United States. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gladwell, Malcolm. “Smaller: The Disposable Diaper and the Meaning of Progress.” New Yorker, November 26, 2001, 74. Gladwell, a popular writer on the history of material culture, offers a brief but detailed look at the unsung “heroes” of the invention of disposable, and ultra-absorbent, diapers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heinrich, Thomas, and Bob Batchelor. Kotex, Kleenex, Huggies: Kimberly-Clark and the Consumer Revolution in American Business. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004. A company history of Kimberly-Clark and its hugely successful products, such as Huggies diapers. Includes the chapter “The Rise of Consumer Nondurables.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poore, Patricia. “Disposable Diapers Are OK.” Garbage 4 (October/November, 1992): 26-28. A detailed examination of the diaper debate. Infers that disposable diapers were a scapegoat for a larger problem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Procter & Gamble: The House That Ivory Built. Lincolnwood, Ill.: NTC Business Books, 1988. Detailed company history from a marketing perspective. Covers development of major products, including disposable diapers. Extensive information on marketing dollars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rathje, William, and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage. New ed. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001. Examination of nine U.S. landfill compositions through a study sponsored by the University of Arizona. The authors found no distinguishing differences between the effects of disposable and cloth diapers on the environment. Updated preface.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schisgall, Oscar. Eyes on Tomorrow: The Evolution of Procter and Gamble. Chicago: J. G. Ferguson, 1981. Extensive company history with particular emphasis on the way Procter & Gamble jumped ahead in the household product arena. Covers disposable diapers and includes some discussion on the international market for the product.

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Categories: History