1950s baby. Still from YouTube: P&G - Ivory Snow - It Makes Diapers Behave - Vintage Commercial - 1950s - 1960s. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNumSoLJZ1Q
I didn’t think about diapers with regard to the Saint Maggie series until I was working on Seeing the Elephant. While a baby – little Natey – was present as early as Saint Maggie, the storyline did not delve into baby care. After all, Maggie and friends had a mystery to solve. In the second book, Walk by Faith, Natey has just turned two years old when the story starts. He most likely is not toilet trained – but again, the plot was centered on the family’s loss of their house, a temporary sojourn at the home of Maggie’s brother, and their relocation in Gettysburg. For some reason, I just didn’t worry about diapering methods, especially once the battle gets under way in Gettysburg.
At the conclusion to A Time to Heal, Eli and Maggie become the proud parents of Faith. And that is when I started to ask, “What are my characters doing about diapers?” And began scouring the internet for information about the topic.
The internet is amazing, because you can find just about anything there. Of course, the big challenge is verifying whether or not what you have found is factual. That’s why I always try to find a scholarly article to back up pieces written for general consumption.
According to the essay written by B. Krafchik, “Most cultures have been aware of the necessity to provide a covering over the genital area, both for privacy, and for the containment of excreta.” That form of protection varies region to region due to climate, social customs, and so on. Since the Saint Maggie series is set in 1800s America, and at that time the dominant culture in the U.S.A. was rooted in European culture, we will follow our genetic makeup with regard to our diapering history.
During the Elizabethan era in England, cloth resembling contemporary diapers came into being and was used as such. However, it was used in a different manner, one that might make a contemporary parent’s hair stand on end and nose to wrinkle. According to the Lil Babycakes website, a diaper was changed after days (rather than hours), which meant the baby’s bottom was swathed in its urine and feces. Furthermore, the cloth used to diaper the baby rarely got washed. “The waste would be shaken out of the diaper and then hung to dry. Once dry, the diaper would be used again” (Lil Babycakes).
Davis Dyer writes that diapers of the 1800s “were typically rectangular or square in shape and were folded and fastened on infants as garments or undergarments….The basic cotton diaper meanwhile evolved little through the decades, as it was inexpensive, versatile (bigger children could use bigger cloths), moderately absorptive, washable, and reusable (often from child to child in a family or community).”
Despite this, according to Diaper Jungle, in the 1800s urine-soaked diapers still were hung out to dry and infrequently washed. Eventually a connection was made between frequent diaper changes, washing after each use, and diaper rash and other infant health issues.
According to B. Krafchik, though, things began to change. Around 1820 during England’s Industrial Revolution, people in the working class began to have disposable income. I’m also going to postulate that the Industrial Revolution also meant workers could purchase less-expensive machine-made furniture for their homes. According to Krafchik, this newly-rising group “did not relish their infants dirtying their new possessions.” Thus, they began to seek diapers and diapering methods that would better contain baby’s bodily functions.
When writing Seeing the Elephant, I was predictably grossed out by the idea that little Faith would be sitting around in dirty diapers or re-swathed in a diaper that had been dried but not had the urine washed out. I am a product of a cleanliness obsessed culture, after all. But then I realized that Lydia, as a doctor, would be interested in keeping her little half-sister healthy and happy. There also was some precedent for physicians of the time making a connection between dirty diapers and diaper rash, even if frequent changes and washing urine-soaked diapers was not yet commonplace. So, I made Lydia a bit of a trailblazer and inserted the following paragraph into Seeing the Elephant. The scene takes place downstairs in Greybeal House, where Maggie has just discovered that Faith’s diaper is wet.
[Maggie] had taken to leaving a pile of diapers near the fire. It was convenient when working downstairs. Water from the pump could be warmed with hot water from the kettle, and washcloths, soap, and towels were available nearby. The contents of a messy diaper were easily dumped into a chamber pot, which then could be set outside until taken to the outhouse. The nappy was rinsed in a special pan then deposited in a covered pail filled with soapy water, where it would stay until they did the laundry. The complex routine had been instituted by Lydia and was a great deal of work, but so far changing little Faith’s diapers every time she wet herself seemed to be working. The infant had not developed a diaper rash.
Problem solved! I’m not grossed out and neither are my readers. And fictional little Faith is healthier. But I soon discovered other issues about how my characters might refer to and fasten diapers.
You see, some sources claim that people in Maggie’s era would not use the term “diaper” because the word actually referred to “a cloth with small geometric patterns.” However, this material also was used to cover the baby’s bottom and so the term became associated with the material’s function. (Lil Babycakes). I bought that argument that 1860s people would not have used the word when referring to what they wrapped around their baby’s bottom. But it presented me with a distinct problem. What should I call the dang things? I ended up having my characters refer to baby butt-coverings simply as “cloths” in Seeing the Elephant. How awkward.
As I was writing this blog, though, I dug further into the etymology of the word and discovered that as early as the 1590s, the “diaper” came to mean "towel, napkin or cloth of diaper.” The meaning of the word as a "square piece of cloth for swaddling the bottoms of babies" emerged around 1837 and was in common usage by the 1900s (Online Etymology Dictionary).
You cannot image how relieved I am. While not in common usage, you can be sure that at least Carson has heard the word. I now have justification to have my characters use it. Yippee! I can stop feeling awkward and Eli can stop threatening to call it “the thing that stops the stuff.”
But I had another issue now: how did caretakers secure the diaper to the baby? I found conflicting information about the development of the safety pin, which was used to fasten the diaper so it would stay on the baby. This was how my mother fastened my diapers. I found that some sources report the safety pin was invented in the late 1840s, while others say it was later in 1800s. It is possible that the safety pin was invented in the 1840s but did not come into general use until later in the century. That, however, is merely my guess.
So my novels assume that in Maggie’s era diapers were fastened either by straight pins or by cloth tabs sewn onto the diapers which then could be tied together. Maggie opts for sewing on tabs, since it is more humane. Straight pins obviously could come loose and stab the baby.
For your information, I went crazy while writing this blog as I tried to find the scene where I describe Maggie making that decision. I remember writing it but wonder if I cut it out. Looks like I now need to solve a problem of my own making, which apparently is what happens when you write a series.
This has turned into a huge blog, which only goes to show that even a commonplace thing like diapering a baby can force an author of historical fiction into hours of research. If there is one thing I have learned (and try to practice) it is “don’t make assumptions, do your research.” It’s not easy, and I’m sure I mess up. But it’s a good rule to follow if I expect to assure my readers that my historical fiction is indeed historical.
Later, gaters. Have a jolly weekend!
Diaper Jungle website, “The History of Diapers – Disposable & Cloth The History of Diapers”
Dyer, Davis, “Seven Decades of Disposable Diapers,” The Winthrop Group, Inc. on behalf of EDANA, August 2005, p. 14.
Krafchik, B., “History of Diapers and Diapering,” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
Lil Babycakes website, “History of Baby Diapers”
The Online Etymology Dictionary
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder