Dec 19, 2008
Early Nylon History
Part I: A Bright New Future for Legwear
On a May morning in 1940, consumers across the country descended on their local department stores, ravenous for a new product that had been hyped for over a year. What was this iPhone of its day? A product described by its creators as "one of the most significant developments in industrial research in the United States," something with global trade implications, and, most importantly, something that promised to ease the burden of fashionable women: nylon stockings.
This was an era when you couldn't stroll into any old CVS and buy a pair of sheer pantyhose in an egg-shaped carton. At the time, women's main option was silk. Silk snagged easily, bunched at the knees, and had to be imported from Japan (a very undesirable quality in the 1930s). And so when Du Pont announced the invention of nylon, curiosity about this new and mysterious man-made fabric was high. In preparation for nylon hosiery's release, the corporation produced a massive publicity campaign that included sending a young lady named Betty Huneycutt on a 50-city nationwide air tour as "Miss Nylon Hosiery."
Department stores added to the buildup. Gimbels ran an ad in the New York Times imploring women to test and compare: "Which would you rather have on your legs?" it read. "Coal and air and water, chemically blended and whipped and spun into a brand new man-made fiber? Silk that depends for its texture on the whim of a silk worm, and its ability to digest mulberry leaves? Test nylon for yourself!"
The excitement was so great that feverish rumors about nylon's durability began to spread: it would last forever! It would never snag or run! It's a miracle fabric! By early 1940, Du Pont found itself attempting to quell these inflated expectations. "I'm afraid many claims have been made for nylon that could not be substantiated," Dr. C. M. A. Stine, Du Pont's president and director of research, said in a speech at the Chemists Club that January. "Please disabuse your minds of the notion that nylon stockings won't 'run.' I think they will, though I hope not as frequently as stockings of natural silk."
On that first May day, salesgirls had been briefed on how to educate hysterical customers about the true, snaggable nature of nylon, but those customers snatched them up anyway. In Philadelphia, women waited outside Center City department stores before they opened, and local shops displayed signs that read simply "Nylon" to attract customers. A newspaper report said that 40,000 pairs were bought in the city by the end of the day. Most stores restricted purchasing to two pairs per customer, for it was estimated that it would take at least 18 months for the one little Du Pont plant in Delaware to meet national nylon demand.
How long do you think it took for the first customer to have her hosiery hopes and dreams dashed by a run? It's difficult to find reports of such things, but speaking both from experience and with a luxurious amount of hindsight, I'd guess, oh, about half an hour? But what a euphoric 30 minutes that must have been.
Stay tuned for part two of Early Nylon History, in which we hear about the wartime hosiery-related sacrifices women made for their country and the ingenuity with which they overcame their fashion hardships.