Correspondence, patents, photographs, newspaper clippings, and subject files about various inventors and ideas. Collection documents women inventors, American culture, 1950s-1970s, and products designed for women and the home. Donovan's papers offer a near complete invention record, including both successes and failures, as well as patent and trademark correspondence.
Scope and Contents:
The Donovan papers offer a near complete invention record, including both successes and failures, and include correspondence, photographs, patents, newspaper clippings, and subject files about various inventions and ideas. This collection documents direct marketing techniques for products designed especially for women and the home. It may be useful for researchers interested in women inventors and entrepreneurs, American culture from the 1950s through the 1970s, and advertising history.
Series 1: Personal Papers and Biographical Materials, 1917-1999
Subseries 1.1: Biographical Materials, 1917-1999 includes newspaper clippings, biographical materials, and memorabilia relating to Marion Donovan's early life, family, and social activities. Note: Original clippings have been photocopied, and researcher copies are available.
Subseries 1.2: Magazine Publications, 1953-1999 includes original magazines which featured articles on Marion Donovan.
Series 2: The Boater, 1949-1995
Includes United States and foreign patents, notes, clippings, correspondence, photos, press releases and scrapbooks that document the invention of the Boater diaper cover.
Series 3: Other Ideas and Inventions, 1941-1993
Subseries 3.1: Marion Donovan's Subject Files, 1941-1995 are arranged chronologically and contain advertisements, articles, correspondence, sketches, notes, United States and foreign patents, photo materials, press releases, publications, and some artifacts documenting her ideas and inventions.
Subseries 3.2: Barbara Walters' Television Special, Not For Women Only,  features an episode highlighting "Inventors and Invention," with a panel that includes Marion Donovan, Jacob Rabinow, and Henry Kloss, demonstrating their inventions.
Series 4: Dentaloop, 1979-1996
Subseries 4.1: Manufacturing Files, 1979-1996 contains files relating to the manufacture and packaging of DentaLoop, and includes photo materials, correspondence with various manufacturers including Johnson & Johnson, clippings, craft materials, and reports.
Subseries 4.2: Patents and Patent History, 1985-1996 contains files kept by Marion Donovan documenting the patent history of her and others' dental inventions.
Subseries 4.3: Marketing Files, 1989-1995 includes a substantial mailing list compiled over the years by Marion Donovan Associates, various order forms, advertising drafts, press releases, correspondence with Procter & Gamble, photo materials, personalized questionnaire responses, and a "How-To" videotape demonstration.
The collection is divided into 4 series.
Series 1: Personal Papers and Biographical Material, 1999
Series 2: The Boater, 1949-1999
Series 3: Other Ideas and Inventions, 1941-1993
Series 4: DentaLoop, 1979-1996
Biographical / Historical:
Twentieth-century inventor, Marion O'Brien Donovan (1917-1998), made a career of designing solutions to everyday, domestic problems. Her career is framed by her invention in 1949 of the "Boater," a diaper cover made of surplus parachute nylon, and her invention in 1993 of DentaLoop, individual precut circles of two-ply dental floss. As an inventor and entrepreneur, Donovan created products that addressed problems in personal health, beauty, and household needs.
Marion O'Brien was born into a family of inventors on October 15, 1917, in South Bend, Indiana. Marion's father, Miles O'Brien, with his identical twin brother John, developed an industrial lathe for manufacturing gun barrels and founded the South Bend Lathe Works in 1906. After her mother died when she was seven, Marion spent a majority of her time at her father's factory, even inventing a "tooth powder" while in elementary school. She graduated with a B.A. in English from Rosemont College in 1939, and worked briefly for both Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. In 1942, she married James F. Donovan and moved to Westport, Connecticut.
A Connecticut housewife and mother of two in 1946, Donovan was unsatisfied with the options available to her to keep her babies dry. To her, cloth diapers "served more as a wick than a sponge," and rubber pants assured a nasty case of diaper rash. Looking for a way to hold the dampness in without keeping air out, she experimented by clipping a panel from her shower curtain, sewing a moisture-proof diaper cover, and replacing safety pins with snaps. Three years later, she introduced the "Boater." Donovan's attempts to sell her idea to leading manufacturers failed, but her product became an instant sensation and commercial success when she began selling the Boater at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949. In 1951, Donovan sold both her company, Donovan Enterprises, and her diaper patents to children's clothing manufacturer Keko Corporation, for one million dollars.
Marion Donovan's interest in design and invention manifested itself in a Master's degree in architecture which she received from Yale University in 1958, at age forty-one. According to her obituary, she was one of three women in her graduating class. In the decades that followed, Donovan would go on to invent "The Ledger Check," a combined check and record-keeping book; "The Big Hang-Up," a garment hanger and closet organizer; and "The Zippity-Do," an elasticized zipper pull.
Marion Donovan was involved in every aspect of product development, serving as creator, designer, manufacturer, and marketer. Often, designing the product also meant designing the machinery that could construct the product to her unique specifications. While working on the development of DentaLoop, for example, she and second husband, John Butler, traveled to a factory in Germany to explore floss-producing machinery ideas. Donovan also went to great lengths to market her floss product. Between the years 1991 and 1995, in collaboration with daughter Christine, she launched her largest promotional campaign, marketing DentaLoop directly to hundreds of dental professionals and pharmacists all over the country. Always envisioning improvements, she continued to correspond with companies specializing in oral hygiene products until her husband suffered a stroke, and she focused her attentions on caring for him. Following his death in July, Marion O'Brien Donovan Butler died four months later on November 4, 1998.
Artifacts were donated to the National Museum of American History in March of 2000. The "Boater" diaper cover (1949), a key chain bracelet, and "The Zippity-Do" (1970) were donated to the American Costume Collection of Social History Collection (now Division of Cultural and Community Life). "DentaLoop" (1993) materials were donated to the Science, Medicine, and Society Division (now Division of Medicine and Science).
Ms. Donovan's daughters, Christine Donovan and Sharon Donovan Dodd, and son, Dr. James F. Donovan, Jr., donated the collection to the Archives Center, March 2000.
Collection is open for research.
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.