The Invention and Curious History of Nylon Stockings
Nylon made its debut on the lovely legs of Miss Chemistry at the World's Fair in 1939 -- but getting there wasn't easy. It took Du Pont twelve years and $27 million to create, refine and develop the industrial processes for nylon, but when they did, "Nylon Mania" ensued. Then there was the war, "Stocking Panic" and the "Nylon Riots" to live through...
The naming of nylon itself has a curious history or mythology. One myth, especially popular during WWII, was that "nylon" was an acronym for "Now You Lousy Old Nips," an attack on the USA's enemy, Japan, and one of Japanese chief exports, silk. While it seems possible as nylon quickly became a substitute for silk, that ugly acronym story has no basis.
According to Du Pont historians, the company's president, Lammot du Pont, liked 'Delawear' or 'neosheen'. Another executive, Ernest Gladding, threw in 'Wacara', a play on the name of their scientist which invented it. Later, this exec suggested 'norun', which would have caused problems because nylon stockings did run. So he then turned 'norun' around to 'nuron' but it was thought that sounded like a nerve tonic. So he changed the 'r' to an 'l', making it 'nulon'. This apparently was very similar to an existing trademark, and they also realized that ads would refer to "new nulon," which is quite redundant-sounding. Next, Gladding changed the 'u' to an 'i' and got 'nilon', which unfortunately has three pronunciations: "nil-lon", "nee-lon", or "nigh-lon". The last was chosen, and the spelling adjusted to increase correct pronunciation.
However, rumors about the name still circulated, prompting Du Pont to write a letter to Women's Wear Daily in 1904. In it, a Du Pont executive stated: "We wish to emphasize .... that the letters n-y-l-o-n have absolutely no significance, etymologically or otherwise."
But if you think that's all that's interesting in the story of nylon, you are wrong.
In the late 1920's Du Pont was a hotbed of scientific research, working to create 'plastics'. The company had hired a young Harvard chemist, Wallace Hume Carothers, to head its lab. Carothers believed that small molecules could be combined to form larger, more complex ones called polymers. From this research, Carothers and his team developed neoprene, the first synthetic rubber. From there, they worked to create an artificial silk.
After toying with these polymers for several years, Carothers's crew developed a plastic that could be stretched into long, thin, elastic strands like bubble gum. But the new fiber wasn't yet suitable as it couldn't be cleaned easily -- it either melted in hot water or dissolved during dry cleaning.
By 1935, Carothers and his team found a strong polyamide fiber that stood up well to both heat and solvents. Out of the more than 100 different polyamides he evaluated, he chose only one for development. Because this one had six carbon atoms on each side of the polymer, in a true science-geek manner, it was given the name of Fiber 66.
Carothers's revolutionary fiber was later test-marketed in the bristles of the first synthetic toothbrush, Dr. West's Miracle-Tuft toothbrush, and a few other products. Many saw the new synthetic replacing cellophane, photographic film, leather, and wool, and many other things, but Du Pont made the decision early on that full-fashioned hosiery would be the first market. It made sense because each year about seventy million dollars in silk was knitted into stockings -- and average of 8 pairs per American woman each year. Now, that's a consumer base!
By now Fiber 66 was called nylon; Du Pont, however, had decided not to register nylon as a trademark, stating they preferred to have the word enter the American vocabulary as a synonym for stockings. (The company now had a negative attitude about trademarks due to a loss of its trademark for cellophane in 1937.)
In February 1937, the first tests using nylon to make stockings were done, and they went badly. Nylon didn't come off the spools properly; it snagged on the knitting machines; and after being dyed, it looked like a wrinkled mess with "a not too pleasant gray color roughly approximating gun metal." Du Pont quickly learned that quality requirements were very high for full-fashioned hosiery yarn. Undaunted, and blaming this hosiery company for not being familiar enough with nylon to effectively work with the new fiber, Du Pont sought further testing.
This additional testing was done at the Van Raalte mill in Boonton, NJ. The first experimental stockings were made in April, and by July of that year, 1937, Van Raalte had knitted enough material to give Du Pont some definite feedback. The yarn performed quite well, yet there was the big problem with the tendency of the stockings to wrinkle during dyeing and the other finishing operations. It was said that these wrinkles "completely destroyed the uniform appearance of the stocking." Just a few months later it was discovered that these wrinkles could be eliminated by steam treating the stocking before dyeing, and the Van Raalte mills had started turning out "full-fashioned hosiery excellent in appearance and free from defects."
These stockings were deemed virtually indistinguishable from their silk counterparts, but now Du Pont management had to hear from women. How would they react to the nylon stockings?
The women said that the stockings were very durable, but they wrinkled easily and were too lustrous and slippery. Du Pont's response? They were positive, saying "as the data accumulate, they continue to support our belief that in [nylon] we have a product that surpasses rather than approaches the natural one." They believed it was a matter of educating the consumer, not an overall fault of the product. So they continued perfecting the production process.
While all of this was done in secrecy, the word was starting to get out. There were patents -- and rumors. Du Pont had to come out of the lab & acknowledge nylon.
So on October 27, 1938, Charles Stine, a vice president of E. I. du Pont de Nemours, Inc., made the announcement. At the site of what would be the 1939 World's Fair, he unveiled the world's first synthetic fiber not to a scientific society but to 3,000 women's club members gathered at the New York Herald Tribune's Eighth Annual Forum on Current Problems. He spoke in a session entitled "We Enter the World of Tomorrow" which was to play to the theme of the forthcoming fair, the World of Tomorrow.
In the middle of his talk, he proclaimed: "To this audience . . . I am making the first announcement of a brand new chemical textile fiber. This textile fiber is the first man-made organic textile fiber prepared wholly from new materials from the mineral kingdom. I refer to the fiber produced from nylon. . . . Though wholly fabricated from such common raw materials as coal, water, and air, nylon can be fashioned into filaments as strong as steel, as fine as a spider's web, yet more elastic than any of the common natural fibers."
The women at the forum heard "strong as steel" and believed in indestructible, no-run stockings, so they burst into applause.
The next day, the New York Times ran two articles on nylon. One was entitled "New Hosiery Strong as Steel" and began "Coal, air, and water were revealed today...." The phrase "coal, air, and water" associated with nylon and the transforming magic of science -- it was a modern miracle.
For the next 18 months, Du Pont intentionally made very guarded statements about nylon, but public interest remained high. It seemed everyone was eager to see the new nylon and stockings at the World's Fair.
Nylon officially made its debut on the legs of Miss Chemistry at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. To illustrate that this was a modern miracle of science, Miss Chemistry and her nylon stockinged legs emerged from a test tube. This same exhibit was shown at the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco and this theme was oft repeated in advertising as well.
Nylons were once again proclaimed to be "strong as steel and delicate as a spider's web" and models in the Du Pont pavilion at the New York World's Fair played tug-of-war with a nylon stocking to dramatize its strength. All designed to lure women toward nylon stockings -- and away from the 'more delicate' silk ones.
Nylons went on sale to the general public in May 15, 1940, also known as N-day. And in that first year, DuPont sold 64 million pairs of stockings -- give or take a few thousand as that year much nylon was used to create the tornado in the movie "The Wizard of Oz."
It had taken less than five years to bring nylon from laboratory into the marketplace -- and as if that weren't stunning enough, in less than two years Du Pont captured more than 30% of the full-fashioned hosiery market. This despite the fact that nylon stockings cost 10% more than silk stockings.
The higher price was simply a corporate (greed) decision for nylon cost less to produce than silk. And because nylon was without question a Du Pont invention, with an impregnable patent, the company did not have to worry about being undercut by competitors -- there were no competitors. Du Pont had a winner in nylon.
Du Pont spared little expense in promoting nylon after its introduction. The combination of thrilling science 'modern marvel' technology, the durability of nylon stockings, women's love of the stockings which were more luxurious than silk, and Du Pont's promotions created a public sensation that was called "Nylon Mania".
During World War II Du Pont increased its nylon production threefold to keep up with the military demand for parachutes, airplane tire cords, and glider tow ropes This brought nylon production to more than twenty-five million pounds a year, yet Du Pont still needed to end stocking production.
In America, the nylon stocking shortage created such a demand that women would not be content to just pencil stocking seams on the backs of their legs. Even though the stockings had cost just a little over a dollar, people began paying as much as $20 on the black market.
"Stocking Panic" was so intense that police in Chicago ruled out robbery as a motive in a murder case just because six pair of nylon stockings had been left at the scene of the crime -- for any thief would surely have taken the $120 worth of property.
Just eight days after Japan's surrender, in August of 1945, Du Pont announced that it would immediately return to producing nylon stockings. You might think this ended the hysteria of "Stocking Panic" -- but in reality, this obsession turned into the "Nylon Riots" for Du Pont could not make the wartime conversions fast enough to keep up with consumer demands.
In September, stockings went on sale -- at a limited number of stores. The nylons not only quickly sold out, but thousands of people would show up and become disorderly. Standing in line for hours, and still not even get a chance to buy stockings, the women began to fight, and even riot. Police were needed to keep the peace and disperse crowds.
In Pittsburgh, 400 women created a petition and presented it to the mayor who responded by arranging for a stocking sale. At the sale, 13,000 pairs of nylon stockings were available -- and 40,000 people lined up to fight for them. This was not unusual, as similar scenes were taking place all across the country.
It took until March of 1946 for Du Pont to meet consumer demand by producing 30 million pairs a month to effectively end the "Nylon Riots."
Of course Du Pont didn't only use nylon to create stockings. In the 1940's Du Pont's advertising featured a woman in a nylon dress, and nylon was adopted for use in lingerie and foundation garments.
Without nylon, we wouldn't have such lavish lingerie, stunning stockings and other wonders of female delight. (No babydolls, negligees, peignoirs -- oh my!) Nylon quickly became the revolutionary textile fiber.
Carothers didn't live to see any of this. He didn't even see the lovely nylon-stockinged Miss Chemistry emerge from her giant test tube at the fair 1937.
In April of 1937, just 19 days after applying for the Fiber 66 patent, Carothers, the father of nylon, committed suicide with a ration of poison cyanide he presumably always carried on his person. (Fellow Dupont researcher Julian Hill had said that Carothers could list all the famous chemists who had committed suicide, and she had once observed Carothers carrying what turned out to be a ration of the poison cyanide.)
Perhaps had he struggled for a few more weeks, the pretty nylon covered legs of Miss Chemistry would have inspired him to stay alive.
All images Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library ~ except for Dita, which is from Secrets in Lace Stockings.