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Monday, December 6, 2010

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Let's visit Cloth Diapering at the Turn-of-the-Century!

Autumn has arrived and winter isn't far off, even down here in the desert southwest. As the leaves turn gold and crimson and we prepare for another holiday season, my thoughts also begin to turn towards family and all those who have come before me.

Like anyone else, I could list a hundred things I'm thankful for right now, but as the mother of a cloth diapered 10-month old, I'm particularly thankful for a good washers, good detergents, modern materials, and human ingenuity.

Chemistry and manufacturing advances give us materials like PUL, microfiber, microfleece, and OBV (organic bamboo velour). Microfleece keeps the wetness off of baby's skin, and PUL keeps the wetness off of us. Good washers and detergents mean that we can keep our microfiber, fleece, and yes, even the cotton pre-folds clean enough to reuse without fear of causing reactions or infections. With all that, it still took enterprising mamas to put them all together and create the modern cloth diapers that many cloth diapering families use today.

Today, we have countless options for diapering our infants, babies, and toddlers, but did you ever wonder how your great-grandmother diapered her children? Most likely, she went the simple route, but even at the turn of the century there were options!

Figure A is from an instructional handbook written for English wives stationed in India. It gives a pattern for a “diaper cover" made of flannel. The 1893 handbook The English Baby in India (and how to rear it), is by Mrs. Howard Kingscote. Like her, several sources recommended fabrics such as gauze or bird's eye cotton for the diaper cloth, and an outer cover such as described above made out of flannel to hold it all together.

It might be worth mentioning that the rubber pants or “Stork Pants”, similar to those our parents loved to loathe (if they cloth diapered us or our siblings) seem to have been almost universally discouraged by the medical profession at the turn of the century. They were recognized as the main culprit of diaper-area sores and infection. That didn't stop their manufacture, or (based on their prevalence until recently) parents from purchasing them. You can see an example in Photo B, an ad taken from the March 1905 issue of the periodical, The Delineator. Because of the associated problems, various sources (particularly medical sources) recommended, instead, using wool or rubber pads for parent's laps, cots, and prams, along with frequent changes. Sounds a bit like the let-the-baby-go-coverless-crowd of today! 

Some diaper styles were managing to make it into production, as Figure C, an advertisement for “Stork” Absorbent Diapers proves. This design addressed the concern common at the time, especially with the triangle fold, that diapers were excessively bulky. This particular style doesn't seem to have caught on, probably because of the difficulty inherent in thoroughly washing a thicker diaper by hand. This advertisement was published in the January 1906 issue of Home Needlework Magazine.

With the advent of these newfangled pins, the Mommy Wars took on yet another battle – to pin or not to pin. Who knew?

Figure D is an excerpt from a letter written by the wife of a doctor to a medical journal concerning what she regarded as the barbarous use of diaper pins among the well-to-do. Mrs. Dr. V. E. Harvey reports in the December 1900 issue of Medical Arena that the custom is to “pin tightly at the knees” - I can't even imagine what that would look like – and suggests instead the English custom of a flannel cover (this time rectangular, rather than triangular as in Figure A) instead. The entire letter, beginning on page 39, is interesting and worth a read if you have a few moments.

We're all thankful for so much this holiday season, but I'd like to add one more thing to the list – the ingenuity of our forebears and contemporaries, whose hard work and creativity in home, academic, and industrial sciences have made it so much more simple to parent the way we choose.

By Angie S.


Nella said...

I posted something on my blog just yesterday along the same lines.

I really enjoy reading The Cloth Diaper Whisperer, keep up the good work all of you.

Angie said...

Figure A:
Figure B:
Figure C:
Figure D:

Sarahjenne said...

Cool! I clicked on the link to the Google book and got really into reading about rearing English children in India. Some of the things they say are not too far off what we do now and some are just nuts. Good read! Thanks!