Housewife who invented the disposable nappy
In 1947, Valerie Hunter Gordon was married to an Army officer, living in Camberley, in Surrey, and expecting a baby, said The Daily Telegraph. With two older children, she’d already experienced the “awful labour” of washing, drying and ironing nappies, and, aged 26, was dreading the prospect of returning to it. Surely, she thought, there must be some kind of disposable variety she could use instead. But her research revealed that even in the US, there was no such thing. “It was extraordinary,” she said. “No one had thought about it.”
Valerie Hunter Gordon 1921-2016
So Hunter Gordon decided to create her own. “I thought, it’s easy, I’ll make them. But it wasn’t easy.” Initially experimenting with parachute nylon – which was easily sourced in those postwar years – she came up with a pair of PVC pants, fastened with a cord and poppers, and containing a cellulose pad, and a layer of cotton wool. There was no need for safety pins; the plastic holder could be rinsed and reused; while the rest was disposable, and largely biodegradable. So her nappy created little extra waste, and used far less water and energy than the old towelling ones. They worked brilliantly on her son Nigel – and soon, all the other Army wives wanted them for their babies. “And so I ended up making over 600 of these wretched things.” It was, she observed, far more work than washing nappies had been. But her husband helped, and in 1948, they applied for a patent. The first Paddi Pads – and accompanying PaddiPants – went on the market in 1949. The idea of throwing things away sat uneasily with a public accustomed to the make-do-andmend spirit of the War years, and sales were slow. But after the nappies were promoted in The Lancet, they were stocked in Boots, and the tide turned: by 1960 they were selling millions per year. Hunter Gordon had not been able to patent the pads (only the pants) – so Paddis didn’t make her a fortune. But with six children eventually, she certainly found the royalties useful. The company later diversified, producing pads for women – which sold even better. In the 1960s, however, a US firm launched Pampers. More absorbent than Paddis, and fully disposable, they took over the market, and Paddis went into slow decline. Born in 1921, Hunter Gordon was the daughter of Sir Vincent de Ferranti, of the Ferranti electrical engineering firm. Aged 19, she married Patrick Hunter Gordon, who’d won an MC in the retreat from Dunkirk. In the 1950s, the family moved to Inverness-shire, where she created a high-tech home, complete with self-closing curtains. Additionally, after being told by Lord Lovat that her daughters – wearing identical Gordon tartan dresses – looked like sponge bags, she researched the archives, and reconstructed an alternative pattern that had been made by Gordon weavers. Marketed as Red Gordon, it proved hugely popular.
Gordon with three of her children