Marion Donovan was always destined to be an inventor. Inventiveness was in her blood. Her brothers, father and uncle had all invented ingenious factory machines. But Donovan’s inventions would come in a more domestic setting.
Born in South Bend, Ind., on Oct. 15, 1917, her mother died when she was seven. Her father raised her. He and his identical twin brother had invented a lathe tool used to make automobile parts and gun barrels. They ran the South Bend Lathe Works, which Marion visited often after school. Her father encouraged her to innovate new things, and helped her design a new kind of tooth powder when she still went to elementary school.
She graduated from Rosemont College in Pennsylvania, and then went to New York City for a job as assistant beauty editor at Vogue magazine. In 1942, she married James Donovan, gave up her job and moved to Westport, Conn., to raise their three children.
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 and a sopping crib. Lightning struck one day for Donovan when she took inspiration from her shower curtain. She began the design process of cutting and sewing the curtain into what she would name 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, it minimized diaper rash. And snaps to keep it in place avoided sticking the baby with safety pins.
Donovan just had one other problem to conquer: the ignorance of the manufacturing industry. She approached the firms selling products to moms, only to hear repeatedly that they had no need for her innovation.
Undeterred, Donovan tapped into her familiarity with manufacturing and made the Boater herself. When the Boater debuted in 1949, she realized instant success. Saks Fifth Avenue couldn’t keep them in stock.
By 1951, companies could see the commercial potential for the Boater. Donovan sold the rights to her Boater patents for $1 million. But she hadn’t finished innovating. Having worked with the Boater for years, she pursued the next logical innovation in diapers: the disposable diaper.
Again, Donovan tried to interest companies in her idea, but they had no interest. Who would want disposable diapers?
Donovan then turned her entrepreneurial mind to other inventions. They included a space-saving closet hanger system and soap dish insert that minimized soap scum buildup. Over time she accumulated 20 patents. Finally, she trained as an architect at Yale and then designed her own home in Greenwich, Conn.
As for the disposable diaper: evolution was impossible to stop. Europeans created and sold disposables. As their success blossomed, American companies quickly fell in line and Victor Mills created the first American disposable for Proctor & Gamble in 1956 – Pampers.
This story updated in 2022.