Disposable diaper inventorValerie Hunter Gordon

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A British Army wife, Gordon had just had her third child and was fed up with washing nappies — diapers. “Everybody wanted to stop washing nappies,” she said of her friends. Since there was no such thing as a disposable diaper in 1947, she invented them. “It seemed extraordinary that it hadn’t been done before,” she said years later. “I thought, it’s easy, I’ll make them. But it wasn’t easy. It was quite tricky.” She made an outer pant from surplus nylon parachutes, and then a disposable pad inserted inside. The result was a sustainable product — and a major hit. “Everybody who saw them said, Valerie, please would you make one for me? And so I ended up by making about over 600 of them.”

1950s ad for Paddi, featuring Gordon’s son Nigel.

By 1949 she was awarded a patent, and she found a manufacturer willing to make them (using plastic rather than old parachutes), and a store chain — Boots — willing to sell them. Various companies tried to buy the company out, but “Paddi” rebuffed the offers, and their product sold well until 1961, when American company Procter & Gamble came up with Pampers. With those, mothers threw out the entire thing, rather than just the inserts. That was considered wasteful and unsustainable, but it was more convenient and that type now rules the market. She had three more children, and all used the Paddi. Gordon went on to develop “Nikini” — the first “modern” sanitary towel for women, which actually earned her more in royalties than her nappies. That surprised her, though “there are probably more menstruating women in the world than incontinent babies,” she said. Gordon died at her home in Scotland on October 16. She was 94.

From This is True for 23 October 2016