Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Archives Center Home  |  Collections Index

 

MARION O'BRIEN DONOVAN PAPERS, 1949-1996
#721

(7 cubic feet: 15 DB, 2 ShB, 4 F/O, 1 O/S Fldr)

by: Lauren Kata, 2000

Biography

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.

Scope and Content

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.

The collection is arranged in four series:

Series 1: PERSONAL PAPERS AND BIOGRAPHICAL MATERIALS, 1917-1999

Subseries A: 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 B: 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 A: 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 B: Barbara Walters' Television Special, Not For Women Only, [1975] 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 A: 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 B: Patents and Patent History, 1985-1996 contains files kept by Marion Donovan documenting the patent history of her and others' dental inventions.

Subseries C: 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.

Related Materials

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. "DentaLoop" (1993) materials were donated to the Science, Medicine, and Society Division.

Provenance

Daughters Christine Donovan and Sharon Donovan Dodd, and son Dr. James F. Donovan, Jr., donated the collection to the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History in March, 2000.

Container List

Box Folder
SERIES 1: PERSONAL PAPERS AND BIOGRAPHICAL MATERIALS, 1917-1999
Subseries A: Personal Papers and Biographical Materials: 1917-1999
1 1 Biographical Articles and Obituaries, 1939-1999
2 Early Personal Papers, Birth and Marriage Certificates, 1917-1982
3 Resumes and Correspondence with Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, 1939-1941
4 Resumes and Certificates, 1946-1976
5 General Patent information filed by Christine Donovan, 1998
6 Miscellaneous Personal Papers and Stationery, 1969-1985
7 Article: Zalmon Wakeman House, 1989 (House in which Donovan family spent time, 1950s
19 1 Original Clippings, 1939-1998
17 1 Yale Diploma, 1958
Subseries B: Magazine Publications, 1953-1999
1 8 Today's Woman, January, 1953
9 Money, August, 1973
10 Good Housekeeping, September, 1984
11 Mature Outlook, September/October, 1987
12 Glamour, January, 1988
13 Spotlight, May, 1997
14 NewsweekExtra, Winter, 1997-1998
15 U.S. News & World Report, August 17-24, 1998
16 People Weekly, December 7, 1998
17 New York Times Magazine, January 3, 1999
18 Your Company, February/March, 1999
19 3 Metro Santa Cruz, March 10-17, 1999
SERIES 2: THE BOATER, 1949-1995
2 1 Patents, 1949-1952
2 Advertisements/Clippings, "The Boater," 1949-1952
3 Press Releases, 1949-1951
4 Correspondence: Saks Fifth Avenue, Customer Orders, 1949-1954
5 Advertisements/Clippings, "Competition," 1951-1953
6 Vogue Pattern Book, 1951
O/S Fldr. 1 Oversize Laminated Advertisements/Clippings, ca. 1949-1951
18 3 Boater scrapbook 1, 1949-1951
4 Boater scrapbook 2, 1949-1951
5 Boater scrapbook 1, 1949-1951 (NOT FOR RESEARCHER USE)
6 Boater scrapbook 2, 1949-1951 (NOT FOR RESEARCHER USE)
6 2-3 Advertisements and Clippings, ca. 1949-1951 (NOT FOR RESEARCHER USE)
19 5 Oversize Advertisements and Clippings, ca. 1949-1951
14 6 Correspondence: Procter & Gamble, 1995
SERIES 3: OTHER IDEAS AND INVENTIONS, 1941-1995
Subseries A: Marion Donovan's Subject Files, 1941-1995
3 1 Discussion of Patents, 1995
2 Key Bracelet, 1941
3 "Facial Tissue Materials," 1951-1968
21 "Facial Tissue," 1951-1968, Artifacts
3 4 "Dispensing Container for Flowable Material," 1955-1957
5 Nursing Bottle Marker, 1956
6 "Incredible Tulle," 1957-1982
7 "Tea Bag Envelope," 1961-1981
8 "Shoe Box/Storage Container," 1962
9 "Two-Way Envelope," 1965-1981: Clippings and Correspondence
10 "Two-Way Envelope," 1965-1981: Correspondence and Patents
11 "Two-Way Envelope," 1965-1981: Craft Materials
12 "Two-Way Envelope," 1965-1981: Craft Materials and Samples
13 "Index Cards/Index," 1966-1985
4 1 "The Ledger Check," 1969-1983: Clippings, Correspondence, Notes
2 "The Ledger Check," 1969-1983: Patents
21 "The Ledger Check," 1969-1983: Artifacts
4 3 "The Big Hang-Up," 1969-1988: Notes, Patents, Patent Searches
4 "The Big Hang-Up," 1969-1988: Clippings, Correspondence, Customer Orders
6 6 "The Big Hang-Up," 1969-1988: Photos
18 1-2 "The Big Hang-Up," 1969-1988: Photos
17 3 "The Big Hang-Up," 1969-1988: Mock-Up Photo Board for Ads
4 5 "Zippity-Do," 1970-71
6 Hair Products Search, 1972
7 "Turtling-A-Ling," 1972-1991: Clippings and Correspondence
6 7 "Turtling-A-Ling," 1972-1991: Photos
5 1 "Towel Holder," 1977
2 "Umbrella," 1979-1983
3 "The Snoozer," 1979
5 4 "Handbags," 1980: Clippings
19 4 "Handbags," 1980: Oversize Magazine Clipping for Material Example
5 5 "Raincoat/Rainwear," 1980
6 "Weight and See," 1980
7 Calendar/Diary Idea, 1985
8 "Bar Harbour," [1993?]
9 General Information and Idea Folder, 1969-1997
11 General Sketches and Doodles, 1980-1988
Subseries B: Barbra Walters' Television Special, 1975
20 OV 721.1 Not For Women Only, Barbara Walters' Television Special, 1975: 3/4" U-Matic Tape, original copy
RV 721.
1-2
Not For Women Only, Barbara Walters' Television Special, 1975: two " VHS Tapes, researcher copies
5 10 Not For Women Only, Barbara Walters' Television Special, 1975: Correspondence
SERIES 4: DENTALOOP, 1979-1996
Subseries A: Manufacturing and Packaging Files, 1979-1996
7 1 Manufacturing Files: "Yarn," 1979-1993
2 Manufacturing Files: Manufacturing Report, 1981-1982
3 Manufacturing Files: Trip to Germany, 1989-1990
6 7 Manufacturing Files: Trip to Germany: Photos, 1989-1990
8 Manufacturing Files: Correspondence with JVM Industries, 1990-1996
9 Manufacturing Files: Miscellaneous Craft Materials, n.d.
7 4 Manufacturing Files: Correspondence, Notes, Sketches, 1989-1992
5 Manufacturing Files: Correspondence, Drawings, Photos, 1993-1995
6 Packaging Files: 1991
7 Packaging Files: Barcode File, 1992
8 Packaging Files: New DentaLoop/FlossLoop Johnson&Johnson Packaging, 1996
6 10 Packaging Files: Photos, New DentaLoop/FlossLoop Johnson&Johnson Packaging, 1996

11

Packaging Files: New DentaLoop/FlossLoop Johnson&Johnson Packaging, 1996: Computer Diskette
Subseries B: Patents and Patent History, 1985-1996
8 1 U.S. Patent, 1985
2 U.S. Patent File History, 1989
3 U.S. Patent File History, 1989
4 "Improved Floss" Patent File, 1996
5 Patent Search: Other Dental Floss Patents, 1980-1989
6 Patent Search: Other Dental Floss Patents, 1960-1994
Subseries C: Marketing Files, 1989-1996
9 1 Articles/Clippings, "DentaLoop," 1993-1994
2 Press Releases and Drafts, 1991-1993
17 2 Drawings, ca. 1991-1995
9 3 Brooks Rogers Incorporated, Press Release, 1994
4 DentaLoop Photos, ca. 1991-1993
5 Articles/Clippings, "Oral Hygiene," ca. 1989-1994
17 5 Oral Hygiene Publications, 1994-95
10 1 Greater New York Dental Meeting, 1992
2 Greater New York Dental Meeting, 1993
6 12 Photos: Greater New York Dental Meeting, 1993
10 3 Greater New York Dental Meeting, 1994
11 1 Various (Blank) Order Forms, ca. 1991-1995
2 Collected Business Cards, Dental Professionals
3 Blank Questionnaire Order Forms, September 17-22, 1992
4 Blank Questionnaire Order Forms, September 24-25, 1992
5 Blank Questionnaire Order Forms, October 5, 1992
6 Mailing List Information, 1992-1994
7 Checked Mailing Lists, 1991
8 Checked Mailing Lists, 1992
9 Phone Mailing List, 1992
10 Master Binder Mailing List, 1991-93
15 1991-92 Card Index: Mailing List, "Before May 26"
16 1991-92 Card Index: Mailing List, "After May 26"
11 11 Typed List of Responses to DentaLoop, ca. 1991-1993
11 12 Manufacturer's Representative Agreement, 1991
12 1 Consumer Viewpoint Interview, October 1989
2 Correspondence with Johnson&Johnson, 1989
3 Dental Merchandise Sales Report, 1991
4 Letter to Art Athens, WCBS Radio, September, 1992
5 Correspondence with Flagship Health Systems, October, 1992
6 Correspondence with Cumberland Neighborhood Family Care Center, March, 1993
7 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, December, 1991
8 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, February 19-June 11, 1992
9 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, June 12-27, 1992
10 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, July 1-8, 1992
11 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, July 14-29, 1992
12 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, August 6-September 3, 1992
13 1 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, September 14-October 1, 1992
2 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, October, 1992
3 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, November 5-27, 1992
4 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, January-July, 1993
14 1 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, 1994
2 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, 1994
3 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, 1994
4 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, 1994
14 5 Personalized Questionnaire Responses, 1994
6 Correspondence with Procter&Gamble, 1995
7 Orders, Pricing, and Income and Expenses File, 1995
20 RV 721.3 DentaLoop Demonstration by MOD, September 29, 1991, (reference)
20 OV 721.2 DentaLoop Demonstration by MOD, September 29, 1991, (original)

TOP

E-mail: archivescenter@si.edu
Revised: March 15, 2007