I propose that the dawn of human civilization be marked with the invention of 2 things, those being air conditioning and the disposable diaper.
The subject of air conditioning will have to wait for now. I wish to discuss the development of the disposable diaper (or nappy, if you're of the British persuasion).
You protest my selection of key developments? What about the development of agriculture, you cry? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to eat, for Heaven's sake, but the handy and convenient disposal of all that agricultural consumption by our precious progeny is certainly a thing of wonder.
Moving right along
In the Dark Ages, (anytime before disposable diapers, or BDD) mothers used whatever was available to catch their infant's output. Animal skins, moss, linens, and leaves were some of the materials used. It wasn't until the 1800s that the containment of toxic baby squeeze (TBS) made a quantum leap forward.
In the 19th Century cloth diapers became the norm for containment of TBS. These cloth diapers were flexible, absorbent, and enabled the mother to keep her baby's output relatively close to its source.
These cloth diapers weren't changed often, with changing intervals commonly being 3-4 days. Royal offspring fared much better, having their blue blooded bums changed daily. Diapers were not laundered after each use but simply hung out to dry, then reapplied. By the late 1800s a square diaper made of cotton, linen, or stockinet was common. It was folded into a rectangular shape and held in place by safety pins.
A better idea
During World War II working women had little time or energy left over for dealing with their infant's effluvium. Need is the mother of invention, as they say, and the diaper service was born. Now, for the first time, a supply of clean diapers could be delivered as needed with the soiled ones carted safely away and re-laundered.
The first absorbent pad used as a diaper was invented in 1942 by Paulistróm in Sweden. It was a pad made of unbleached creped cellulose fibers held in the strategic position by rubber pants.
In 1946 an American housewife named Marion Donovan created what she termed the 'boater, a waterproof plastic covering which fitted over a conventional cloth diaper. She fashioned this covering from a shower curtain. Donovan also used snaps to hold the cover in place instead of the not-so-safe safety pins.
Marion Donovan set about approaching companies with her invention. Finding little to no interest forced her to create a market for her development. She visited stores, asking them to carry her invention. Some agreed, and soon she had a hit on her hands, seeing these diaper covers flying from the shelves. Among stores which marketed her covers was Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949. Donovan secured a patent for her development in 1951 and prompty sold the rights to Keko Corporation.
It took long enough!
Far from content, Marion Donovan set about creating a truly disposable diaper. Her idea was to use a special type of paper pad which was very absorbent and which drew moisture away from the baby's skin. Incredulously, when she approached major manufacturers, she was told the idea was 'superfluous and impractical'. It wasn't until 10 years later that Victor Mills drew upon Marion Donovan's idea and Pampers® brand disposable diapers had been born.
The evolution of disposable diapers was rapid. There were several other manufacturers who took up the gauntlet, spilling forth pasticized butt pads both far and wide. Different materials were used, sizing to fit various size infants, and designer disposables all have come on the scene.
The karma of crap containment
With the huge success of these disposables comes a price. Recent years have seen statistics which tell us that about 2% of waste in landfills consists of plasticized balls of carpet crawler excrement. Estimates of how long it takes for these mommy missiles to biodegrade range to upwards of 500 years.
Other research shows that disposables as currently marketed may have other ill effects. Some of the padding materials are alleged to be a culprit in toxic shock syndrome. Allergic reaction to the plastics used can also occur. Infants have been known to tear off the adhesive tabs, which they then happily devour. Paper cut-like little slices to baby's fingers from the plastic tabs also occur. This all demonstrates the ability of homo sapiens to misuse, modify and generally screw up almost anything more complex than an anvil. Anvils are simply dropped, which of course causes broken toes.
Predictably enough, there has come a backlash to using these products which do their job admirably for such an incredibly long time. The cloth diaper and its cousins have seen a resurgence of popularity with many brands being developed and offered.
Along with this resurgence comes the handmaiden of modern life, the Internet. There are web sites which explain the benefits of cloth diapers, how to care for them, how to make your own (hopefully for the requirements of your progeny), etc. As with so many things, the wheel has turned, come full circle and we find that some old ideas are worth revisiting. That is, except for that one bit about changing them every 3-4 days.