Marion Donovan was always destined to be an inventor – it was in her blood. Her brothers, father and uncle were all ingenious inventors of factory machines. But Donovan’s inventions would come in a more domestic setting.
After giving up her editing job at Vogue magazine to settle down and raise her family in Westport, Conn., Donovan put her mind to one of the major issues a young mother faces: keeping a baby dry and comfortable. The state-of-the art technology at the time was cloth diapers fastened with safety pins and covered with rubber baby pants.
The rubber pants produced diaper rash, but not using them produced a wet baby, crib, rugs, etc. Lightning struck one day for Donovan when she took inspiration from her shower curtain. She began the iterative design process of cutting and sewing the curtain into what would become the “Boater.”
The Boater was a simple plastic sheath into which a diaper was inserted. It was then snapped in place around the baby, swaddling it in comfort while protecting the furniture. Because it still allowed some air circulation, diaper rash was minimized. And snaps to keep it in place avoided the hazards of safety pins.
Donovan just had one other problem to conquer: the ignorance of the manufacturing industry. She approached the firms that were selling products to moms only to hear repeatedly that there was no need for her innovation.
Undeterred, Donovan tapped into her familiarity with manufacturing and made the Boaters herself. When the debuted in 1949, the department store Saks Fifth Avenue couldn’t keep them in stock. The success was instantaneous.
By 1951, companies saw that Donovan was right and she sold the rights to her Boater patents for $1 million. But she wasn’t done innovating. Having worked with the Boater for years, she was the next logical innovation in diapers: the disposable diaper.
Again, Donovan was ahead of her time. She tried to interest companies in her disposable paper diaper idea, but was told there was no interest. Who would want them?
Donovan would turn her entrepreneurial innovative mind to other products, including a space-saving closet hanger system and soap dish insert that minimized soap scum buildup. Over time she would accumulate 20 patents. Finally, she would train as an architect and design her own home in Greenwich.
As for the disposable diaper: evolution was impossible to stop. Disposables were created in Europe and as their success blossomed, American companies quickly fell in line and Victor Mills would create the first American disposable for Proctor & Gamble in 1956 – Pampers.