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Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

The Nightmare—(at the land fill)

Swirling white plastic bags, hovering like playful ghosts?

Keurig Cups?? (A big problem-but not yet a crisis.)

No, the real crisis is disposable diapers—you know those necessities we need in the cradle and as we head for the grave.

I had no idea that how we deal with “elimination of body waste” could be so controversial—or have an actual history that reflects the culture or era we live in. Let me admit right up front that I was never much of a baby person. I know I had dolls as a young girl. The only two I really remember were a bride doll that came with a red trunk of clothes and my Ginny doll (remember, these were pre-Barbie days). I don’t ever remember having a true baby doll—the kind you pretend to feed with a tiny plastic bottle or one that required changing a diaper as doll technology advanced and dolls dripped out water so young girls could practice a skill that might take up a good part of their adult life.

Believe it or not, there are entire histories written about diapers. I would have never given this much thought had it not been for a headline in the Providence Journal that declared, “Families unable to afford (disposable) diapers at risk for health woes” (5/12/14).

Who among you ever thought that the reference to Baby Jesus “wrapped in swaddling clothes” lying in a manger was actually describing how babies as far back as Egyptian times were “diapered”? Fast forward over the next two thousand years. For decades strips of cloth (mostly linen or cotton) were folded and pinned in place, usually on each side of the body with steel safety pins that later evolved into pins with cute little plastic images in appropriate baby colors. By the late 1800s, according to diaper history, most babies in Europe and North America were wearing what we might recognize as a modern diaper. However, the history does point out that in warm climates babies were most often naked, and the mother had to rely on intuition to know when she needed to hold her baby away from her body. Actually the word “diaper” was originally the term for “an overall pattern of small repeated geometric shapes—and then a white cotton or linen fabric with such a pattern.” When this fabric with repeated pattern was used for babies, the term diaper emerged.

In my mother’s era, during World War II and throughout the 1950s (when we were babies), cloth diapers, perhaps covered by rubber pants, were the order of the day. There were a few accepted methods of folding. One was to simply fold the long rectangle of cloth several times, pinning it on two sides as previously mentioned. The other more elaborate way was an imitation of origami. Fold the cloth into a triangle, bring the three corners together in front of the baby’s stomach, and use one pin. While this method resulted in less bulkiness, there were more leaks. Since not many had a version of the modern washing machine, and certainly no dryers, diapers were most often boiled and hung to dry on clothes lines in the cellar, on the porch or in the yard—silent flags of surrender to one of the more mundane chores of motherhood. For a reminder of how this process worked, I recommend watching the old Disney cartoon, Goofy, the perfect father (Disney, 1948). During this era, when more women entered the work force, the new concept of diaper service appeared. However, in our youth diaper service was regarded as a real luxury.

Leave it to the children of our generation to invent the most necessary items—in this case, disposable diapers. While there is some evidence of various improvements in diapers, most notably the prefolded diaper and some pin less, snap-on diapers, the real sea change came with the prototype of the modern Pampers. The improvements were rapid (elastic added, more absorbent materials invented, built- in side tapes added, the constant search for better and less bulky fit) and led to a completely new industry. Over three decades, disposable diapers became the new norm in modern baby hygiene. When we were raising our children in the 1970s, disposable diapers were regarded as the luxury item and were only used on special occasions, while traveling—or if you suddenly got a raise. Diaper service in our era was no longer considered a real luxury, and when weighing time, soap and water costs, now affordable—but, between service deliveries—there was that stinky diaper pail!

It is estimated that today less than 2 percent of families with children use a diaper service. Other interesting estimates are that disposable diapers per child per year cost about $800—making the total spent by Americans on this product over $7 BILLION a year. Most households have a few cloth diapers around to use at burp cloths or make shift bibs, but less than 8 percent of households actually use them for the purpose intended. While we all know that cotton diapers make the very best dust cloths, few of this generation will ever be able to take advantage of that particular benefit.

And, now, affording disposable diapers has become a controversial social discussion. Because they are so desirable, disposable diapers are sometimes kept behind locked glass shelves in pharmacies and are among the top products targeted for theft. In 2013, an article in the medical journal Pediatric suggested that “diaper need” among the poor was a “growing health and psychological risk for babies and their mothers.” A public outcry over the need for disposable diapers has been the driving force behind the collection and distribution of disposable diapers by food pantries and other charitable organizations. There are diaper banks across the nation, and clearing house agencies that assess need and coordinate distribution. At the center of this advocacy is the fact that while baby formula can be purchased with food stamps issued through the federal programs SNAP and WIC, disposable diapers cannot.

The lack of washers and dryers among the poor also limits diapering options. According to reports, many daycares ban cloth diapers for health reasons. Here’s the leap—it’s been suggested that poor families force their children into early toilet training, causing family stress; children with rashes on their bottoms from lack of available fresh diapers are “cranky, cry more and bond less.” And, hold on—crying babies lead to higher rate of child abuse. Call me uncompassionate—but this last suggestion falls into the “you’ve got to be kidding me” category!

It’s clear that we’ve come a long way from the milkweed leaf wraps and animal skins of the ancients, but have we really made progress? I did my part for the environment and decided early on how long I wanted to deal with this issue –I only had one child.