Postcard Vintage Potty

The human need for potty training and the use of a nappy date back as far as the history of mankind. Training in bladder control and bowel movements is an important rite of passage that is embarked on during the toddler years. While this pilgrimage is universal, the way it is done varies significantly across cultures and throughout time. Throughout history, Mummies have used milkweed leaf wraps, packed grass in animal skins, linen and wool, among other available materials, for their little ones’ nappies.

Potty training rites today look completely different than they did in earlier centuries. In fact, little ones today take nearly twice as long to potty train as little ones fifty years ago.

In the early 18th century, the British philosopher, John Locke advocated placing infants on a “pierced chair” at the same time each morning. This practice was later recommended to be applied after every feed of the infant.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, infants in Europe and North American were wearing cloth nappies – folded square made of linen or cotton flannel and held in place with a safety pin. Parents wanted to train their little ones as early as possible so as to reduce their daily workload. The approach was strictly “parent-centred”. The notion that the child would learn at his/her own pace was not part of the picture.

Some of the methods used by parents were harsh. They wanted the child to go in a designated pot and at a specific time rather than have to deal with a dirty a nappy that they would have to clean. One way they achieved was through the enforced use of enemas or suppositories. In fact, wet nappies were seldom washed, but rather were just hung up by the fireplace to dry.

From the early 1900s to the 1930s, parents continued to try to get their babies to eliminate at designated times, but they did so in different ways. For example, they would put them on strict laxative schedules which doctors approved and encouraged once a baby reached the age of 6 months. This was not always the healthiest of choices and the practice soon died out.

East Germany’s regimented social program included strict guidelines for group potty training. The GDR’s state-run Kitas had children eat together, play together, and poop together. Potty benches are just what they sound like, where several kids at a time would perch together and use the toilet until everyone was done. It wasn’t just potty training, it was the first steps of socialization into this ideology and required total submission to authority. It was also quite practical as disposable nappies were not widely available.

Potty Bench

In contrast, things were much more relaxed in West Germany as Kommunes and cooperative living were in vogue. Authority was decidedly uncool and boundaries were tested. “Coercive toilet-training” was roundly criticized, along with so many practices of the East. Ten years after the reunification of Germany in 1999, German criminologist Professor Christian Pfeiffer went so far as to blame the Eastern potty training for personality faults. He alleged that forced potty training broke a child’s naturally rebellious spirit.

From the late 1940s and 1950s, potty training shifted completely. This was due primarily to the invention of the disposable nappy as well as the improvement of washing machines, which made cloth-nappying easier and more convenient.

The convenience nappy was created in 1950 by a harried New York housewife named Marion Donovan. Tired of washing, bleaching and air drying cloth nappies (referred to as diapers in North America), she cut up her shower curtain into plastic envelopes into which she slipped absorbent material. She used snap closures, rather than pins, to secure the new nappy on her children and dubbed her new product the “Boater.” When no manufacturer bought the idea, Mrs. Donovan called on New York department stores, which agreed to stock them. The disposables were an immediate success and Mrs. Donovan eventually sold her company for $1 million.

However, at this time, disposable nappies were expensive, so most Mummies still cloth-nappied their little ones, which left them motivated to get them out of nappies early.

They attempted to get their child to the designated potty area at the right time by learning their schedules and observing their signals; a method that is still common today in some cultures. However, they avoided recourse to harsh methods or trying to force the child.

A Mummy would place her little one on the potty when she thought the child needed to go. If the Mummy managed to get the little on the potty at the right time, the child would start to make the connection between the physical sensation that precedes elimination and learning where to relieve itself. This method proved to be a success and children were trained by the time they were physiologically ready at the average potty training age of 18 months.

The psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud and developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson both placed great emphasis on the importance of potty training as a developmental milestone, and believed that improper potty training techniques could cause traumas that would lead to emotional issues or personality disorders later in life. Both encouraged gentle potty training methods with positive reinforcement. Later in the 1940’s, the renowned paediatrician, Dr. Benjamin Spock, with his “Readiness Approach”, encouraged Mummies to leave toilet training up to the child and to hold off starting until the child was physiologically ready.

The concept of potty training using potty training dolls was introduced in 1974 by two psychologists named Nathan H. Azrin and Richard M. Foxx in their book “Toilet Training in Less Than a Day”. The potty training doll is used to help teach the child the correct behaviour; and  then you have the child “teach” the doll!  Azrin and Foxx figured out this method while trying to come up with a way to teach children with special needs how to use the toilet. They then applied the method on average children and found that it reduced the time for potty training greatly.

By the 1980s, disposable nappies became much more affordable, so parents were less inclined to potty train early. Parents no longer had to use cloth nappies and even if they chose to use cloth nappies, there were affordable nappy services available. The American Academy of Paediatrics also encouraged a 100 percent child-centred approach to potty training, which further delayed the age that children achieved bladder and bowel control. Paediatrician, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, was primarily responsible for popularizing this notion, but has been criticized for his financial relationship with Pampers, with many questioning his motives.

Today, almost 40 years later, disposable nappies are the mainstream and very affordable. With more Mummies working outside the home than ever, disposable nappies are a necessary modern day convenience. Parents are no longer motivated to potty train their children to reduce the work load. In fact, it is probably the reverse; it is finding time in the busy schedule to fit in potty training, along with all the work associated with potty training itself.

As a result, the average age that children are potty trained keeps going up:

  • In the 1950, almost a 100% of children wore cloth nappies and 95% of these children were trained by the age of 18 months.
  • In the 1980s, about 50% of children wore cloth nappies, while the other 50% wore disposable nappies and only about 50% of the children were potty trained by the age of 18 months.
  • Today, almost 90-95% of children wear disposable nappies and only about 10% of children are potty trained by the age of 18 months.
  • Today, the average age for potty training is about 30 months with the age ranging from 18-60 months.
  • Today, it is not uncommon for a child to remain in nappies until age 3 or later since nappies are cheap, and training takes considerable time and commitment.

Article by archivist, totty

(Awaiting photo of totty on a potty…)