Before the invention of nylon, stockings were typically made of cotton, rayon or silk, of which Japan was the world’s biggest exporter in the 1930s. But as US-Japan relations worsened in the build-up to World War Two, American researchers started looking for an alternative to Japanese silk.
The product of their efforts was nylon. Synthesised by the chemist Wallace Carothers in 1934-1935, nylon offered everything silk didn’t: it was form-fitting, with high tensile strength, and it was 100% American.
The American public loved it: when nylon stockings hit the shelves in 1939, some 4 million pairs were sold in just 4 days. Nylon also proved invaluable during World War Two, being used for parachutes and flak jackets, and went on to spark a revolution in synthetic materials, serving as a precursor to other man-made products like Teflon and spandex.
Here’s the remarkable story of how nylon stockings sparked a materials revolution.
What were stockings made of before nylon?
Before the invention of nylon, stockings were typically made of rayon, cotton or, most popularly, silk. But the use of silk presented a few problems. Firstly, it was delicate, and hence prone to tearing and running. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Japan had a monopoly on the export of silk.
During the tail end of the 1930s, Japan was responsible for supplying some 90% of America’s silk. The US at the time was the biggest consumer of silk in the world, and roughly three-quarters of its imports went towards manufacturing stockings. As tensions between Japan and the US deteriorated in the wake of Japanese expansionism, America started to look for alternatives to the material.
The invention of nylon
Nylon was invented by the American chemist and inventor Wallace Carothers in the mid-1930s. Initially, he was employed by DuPont under the promise of total research freedom. Carothers chose to focus on polymers.
As America’s financial prospects worsened during the Great Depression, DuPont reneged on its promise of research freedom for Carothers, directing him towards the study of new fibres from 1934. He was told to manufacture a durable, flexible new material which could withstand contact with heat and cleaning products. Within roughly a year, a rudimentary form of nylon had been synthesised.
The first nylon stockings
Nylon stockings were showcased to the American public for the first time at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where they were met with great fanfare. In October 1939, nylon stockings were made available for public purchase for the very first time at a string of stores in Wilmington, Delaware. All 4,000 pairs sold out in a matter of hours.
After that initial local market test, nylon stockings went on sale around America on 15 May 1940. That day, Americans bought 800,000 pairs of the revolutionary new product. Within four days, 4 million of them had been sold.
Their success was incontestible. They were form-fitting, luxurious, durable and American-made. To many, they represented American scientific superiority and offered a way for everyday Americans to boycott Japanese goods. Nylon stockings seemed poised to be a staple of US stores for years to come. But then World War Two broke out.
Nylon stockings and World War Two
After the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America joined World War Two. And as the nation shifted towards a wartime economy, all materials and commodities essential to the war effort were rationed and requisitioned. Nylon was no exception.
Rather than being used for stockings, during World War Two, nylon was diverted towards the manufacturing of parachutes, shoelaces and flak jackets, as well as mosquito nets and hammocks for use in the Pacific theatre.
For Americans back home, nylon stockings were only available on the black market. Rather than revert back to silk, some women took to painting stockings on their legs – also known as wearing ‘leg makeup’.
Nylon proved an essential resource for America in World War Two, with some later commentators even reflecting that nylon was “the fibre that won the war”.
The ‘nylon riots’
Though nylon stockings had been taken off the market during World War Two, Americans didn’t forget about them. In fact, when they appeared in stores again after the war ended, demand was so high that the so-called ‘nylon riots’ broke out.
In stores across the country, pandemonium ensued as the much-wanted material was made available to shoppers once again. There are reports of some 10,000 Americans queueing for a San Francisco store, hoping to get their hands on nylon stockings, only for the shop window to give way and several women to faint.
Another incident, reported by a Pennsylvania newspaper, involved several thousand shoppers resorting to “hair-pulling” and “face-scratching” as they battled to bag themselves some much sought-after nylon stockings.
Eventually, as DuPont streamlined its manufacturing process, the supply of nylon stockings was able to match demand. They remained popular well into the 1950s, until pantyhose became the legwear of choice for many.
The age of synthetics
In later decades, nylon went on to fill shelves beyond the hosiery sections of American stores. Now, it’s used in everything from sports racket strings to toothbrushes, travel suitcases to carpets.
Nylon, as a revolutionary man-made material, ultimately sparked a ‘synthetic revolution’. Nylon was the first synthetic fibre to achieve commercial success, and ushered in a new age of man-made materials. Indeed, by proving that polymers could be formulated into invaluable materials, Wallace Carothers and DuPont lay the groundwork for the invention of polyester, Spandex and Teflon.