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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

If you've seen a photo of a newborn baby recently, chances are you've laid eyes on the subject of our next story. We're talking about a blanket - a white flannel blanket with pink and blue stripes that's become a staple in hospitals across the country.

For the latest in our series Beginnings, NPR's Andrea Hsu set out to learn more about this unassuming scrap of fabric that's woven itself into American life.

(Soundbite of a crying baby)

ANDREA HSU: Nurse Colleen Santos swaddles a baby boy just two hours old.

Ms. COLLEEN SANTOS (Nurse): So, I take this and I lay over the baby kind of in a diamond shape.

HSU: The nursery at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Illinois, has been stocked with the same pink and blue striped blankets since before Santos started here nine years ago.

Ms. SANTOS: So, I've known nothing else but these blankets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DONNA CLARK (Manager, Maternity Ward): Well, first of all, they're very absorbent when you first get them.

HSU: Donna Clark is manager of the maternity ward. She has theories about why these blankets have endured.

Ms. CLARK: They're the right size for the baby. They're gender neutral, so we don't get a dad saying, you know, you're putting my little boy in pink or my little girl in blue.

HSU: And Clark says they wash well. That's important because they go through so many of them - 15 to 20 from the minute the baby comes out until he or she is out the door.

This hospital, like many hospitals, doesn't actually own the blankets. They rent them for about 10 cents apiece from Healthcare Laundry Systems.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Ms. ZSEJKE TUSA (Director, Sales, Service And Marketing, Healthcare Laundry Systems): Kind of like a movie. You know, you rent a movie, you have to give it back.

HSU: Zsejke Tusa is director of sales, service and marketing for the laundry. She says the blankets last about 15 washes before they're thrown out or lost. Last year, Healthcare Laundry Systems purchased about 180,000 of them. The manufacturer is just up the road.

Mr. JIM ROBERTSON (President, Medcrest Textile, Medline Industries): We sell approximately a million and a half units a year of just this one style, which is absolutely our number one style of blanket.

HSU: Jim Robertson heads the Medcrest textile division of Medline Industries. That's a medical supply company in Mundelein, Illinois. He guesses they've produced close to 25 million of these blankets since 1980.

Mr. ROBERTSON: For whatever reason, it's been a staple item all the way back as far as we were able to trace the catalogs for Medline, which was back to the 1950s. It really hasn't changed a whole lot in all that time.

HSU: One thing that has changed: the blankets were once made in America. Today, they're made in Karachi, Pakistan. Robertson says part of the appeal is the price. They sell them wholesale for about 250 a piece, which is less than the same blanket with a duck or a dinosaur print.

It makes sense that hospitals and hospital laundries would go for the less expensive option, given how many disappear.

Mr. ZAC JOHNSON: How many of these did we get?

Ms. PENNY JOHNSON: How many did we get?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

Ms. JOHNSON: Or how many did we acquire?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HSU: Zac and Penny Johnson's son, Henry, is already 4 years old. But they still have, tucked in with other keepsakes, one of his pink and blue striped hospital blankets.

Just days after Henry was born, Zac Johnson wrote on his blog that he was totally in love with the blanket.

Mr. JOHNSON: I don't know, the pattern reminded me of sort of like Italian racing stripes - almost like would be the side of a motorcycle helmet or the side of a cool, old Steve McQueen little, sharp race car.

HSU: While the blanket has been a runaway success for Medline, it's not a product they showcase much. Medline's president, Andy Mills, says after all, it is but a minor character in the momentous production that is childbirth.

Mr. ANDY MILLS (President, Medline Industries): It's such a beautiful event. It's great to be part of it, but we're not the leading role in there.

HSU: Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

NORRIS: Last week, we did an online call-out asking you for photos of your newborn with this blanket. And we were amazed by the response: nearly 2,000 photos and hundreds of stories from almost every state.

We couldn't post all of the photos, but you can see a collection of them at our website. That's at NPR.org.

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