ZW History & Musings

DuPont Nylon

As I write this post, it’s 95 (feels like 105) degrees outside in New Orleans. Having retreated to the shelter of our solar-powered air conditioning to write about the history of DuPont nylon, I’m struggling to envision what it would be like to wear stockings every day of my life– let alone in the summertime!

I’m grateful for the plastic in our solar panels, yet perturbed by the problems we face today with synthetic fiber pollution, and mulling over where to begin. This post is an “Origin Story” post so it’s a bit different from regular VGR blog posts. It will cover the background and history of nylon to provide insight on how we got to where we are today with our synthetic fibers.

The next post will resume our regularly scheduled format, covering tips on how to recycle your clothes and reduce the microplastic in your wardrobe! (I’ll link the post here when it’s ready!)

Woman helps DuPont employee demonstrate nylon stockings, 1939
Woman and DuPont worker demonstrating nylon stockings at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

It all starts with the enormous demand for nylon stockings in the 1940s. This consumer demand served as a primary vehicle by which these persistent synthetic fibers made their way into every corner of American life.

Other plastics existed prior to nylon, but the real surge in production occurred during and after WWII, in tandem with nylon. (For more plastic history, see here).

Thus, nylon’s explosive growth in popularity created an opening for DuPont and other chemical companies to introduce a blitzkrieg of oil-based and plastic consumer goods on all fronts, claiming to offer “Better Products for Better Living Through Chemistry.”

While researching my last post, the evolution of the toothbrush, I learned that the first nylon fibers made by DuPont were NOT used for women’s stockings but for toothbrush bristles as part of an early pilot program before nylon hosiery was perfected.

Naturally, I was curious to learn more about nylon and its role in today’s plastic crisis!

Here are a few of the odd things I discovered along the way:
(you can click the links to skip ahead)

  • The man who invented nylon, Wallace Carothers, committed suicide shortly after his discovery
  • Nylon stockings were so highly coveted by consumers that their release generated massive crowds and near hysteria, known as the “Nylon Riots
  • The meteoric rise of nylon and the plastics industry was not so much a sneaky, subconscious infiltration of American homes and minds as it was a pretty blatant declaration of their intent to transform natural resources into highly durable, cheaper, disposable consumer goods

So read on, friends!

Harbinger of Doom?

Nylon was invented by Wallace Carothers, a young Harvard Chemist who was hired by DuPont in 1928 to embark on “pure” or “basic research” in a quest for new scientific discoveries.

Wallace Carothers in the DuPont lab, ca. 1930s.
Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

DuPont had spent significant resources on rayon research ($1 million in 1934!!) and failed to find a superior substitute for silk. Rayon, the only other synthetic option at the time, was too stiff, shiny, and ill-fitting to compete with silk. Carothers’s mission was to depart from existing research and seek new alternatives.

By 1935, after much trial and error with polyesters that didn’t hold up, Carothers and his colleagues finally developed the world’s first viable synthetic fiber: nylon.

The final version, “polyamide 6, 6,” or “Fiber 66,” was prepared with benzene, a starting material derived from coal tar. DuPont would later pitch this as a simple miracle made from “coal, water, and air.”

Feeding Nylon Chips into Five-Position Spinning Machine, 1938
Close-up view of DuPont employee feeding nylon chips into a spinning machine at the pilot plant in Delaware during the early stages of nylon production and research. The chips were fed into the spinning unit, then melted, metered, and filtered before passing through a spinneret to form filaments.
Joseph H. Labovsky Collection, Science History Institute

However, Carothers died before nylon went public. Due to a longstanding struggle with depression and alcoholism, Carothers committed suicide by drinking cyanide on April 29, 1937, a little more than a year before DuPont would announce nylon to the world.

Although his depression began long before he came to DuPont, in retrospect I can’t help but feel that perhaps Carothers’s death was an eery harbinger of doom? An event presaging future decades of previously unfathomable environmental devastation…

Sadly, so little was known about effective mental health and substance abuse treatment at that time. It leads me to wonder, might the current state of our planet have turned out any differently had this creative genius been in good health? Would nylon have turned out as it did?

From Gums to Gams: the Nylon Riots

Dupont nylon ad ca. 1940s
DuPont nylon stocking ad ca. 1940s

As a teenager, I was fascinated by my grandmother’s stories about life during WWII. One of the most compelling tales was that of women’s obsession with stockings and hosiery.

When silk stockings became difficult to obtain during the war, women drew a line (typically with eyeliner) up the backs of their legs to mimic the seams of said stockings.

From the 1920s into the 30s, dress hemlines grew ever shorter, making stockings more desirable for one’s highly visible gams. The seam line, though not necessary today, remains popular among vintage-inspired fashion and lingerie.

I had always assumed these absent stockings were made of silk, but I was surprised to learn that nylon stockings were actually sold before the war, beginning in 1940.

After Carothers died, DuPont scientists continued perfecting Fiber 66, and arrived at the name “nylon” after several variations on “no-run”– to indicate the material’s durability.

Inspecting bristles for toothbrushes, 1937
In the manufacture of toothbrushes the bristles are first washed, bleached and sterilized and then carefully examined. Female workers are picking out black and yellow bristles from the washed white stock at a DuPont factory in 1937. Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

The toothbrush bristle pilot program began in 1938 while DuPont also secretly began work on nylon stockings. Rumors soon popped up about this secret project, with some papers suggesting that the material was even made from cadavers, linking the morbid news about Carothers’s death to the new project.

On Oct. 27, 1938, DuPont announced publicly that they would be making stockings with this new miracle fiber. They sidestepped the bad death PR by reiterating that the new stockings were simply made of “coal, water, and air.”

The next day, an article in the New York Times noted that nylon would have “hundreds of potential uses,” and explained DuPont’s (devious?) strategy in NOT trademarking the name nylon so that it would become a generic term used to refer to the material itself.

This move by DuPont cemented the identity of nylon not as a branded item, but as a raw material along the likes of cotton, lumber, or steel. This encouraged other manufacturers to use it as well, competing to offer consumers more and more fake plastic everything.

In April of 1939, DuPont exhibited the stockings at the World’s Fair in New York, which became quite a sensation among consumers. In October, they performed a test sale, releasing 4,000 pairs of stockings to DuPont employee wives. These sold out in only three hours.

Dupont soon “realized what kind of stretchy, durable, washable, dryable revolution it had synthesized” and began preparing for wide release. On May 15, 1940, known as “Nylon Day,” they released four million pairs that sold out in just a few days.

However, just as quickly as the public snatched up those stockings, nylon was taken off the market and repurposed solely for war supplies. These included: parachutes, tire cords, ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, shoe laces, mosquito netting, and hammocks.

Nylon’s “strength, elasticity, weight, and resistance to mildew” was soon praised for helping the Allies win the war. Once the war was over, nylon stocking production resumed. Hoards of women in numerous cities lined up for miles to rush into department stores and get their hands on them– aka the Nylon Riots.

In one widely cited example, 40,000 Pittsburgh shoppers lined up to compete for 13,000 pairs in June of 1946. The Pittsburgh newspaper reported ‘a good old fashioned hair-pulling, face-scratching fight broke out in the line.’

A short 1940s instructional video on how to take care of your new nylon stockings!

In comparison to nylon, silk now had several disadvantages: inability to stretch, difficulty cleaning, sagging and bagging, and easily ripping. Combined with the lower cost and durability of the nylon stockings, these disadvantages meant silk was phased out by 1949.

Better Living Through Chemistry

So, did anyone object to all of this? Did they have any understanding that the billions of nylons and other plastic products they were making would come to haunt us mere decades later?

I was prepared to look for research about how all these chemical companies sneakily brainwashed consumers into buying the billions of harmful synthetic products that still exist today, slowly degrading our oceans.

But… it really wasn’t that sneaky.

It was a pretty blatant declaration of their intention to pillage the earth, like in this freaky promotional video below, made by DuPont in 1936, extolling the virtues of “Better Living Through Chemistry.”

And, it seems the average person did not have a problem with that.

“…every year DuPont buys from the farm, the mine, and the forest vast quantities of materials to be converted by industry into products that provide better things for better living…products of thrilling beauty and wide utility when modern chemistry and modern industry join hands in serving our modern America”

Of course, from our view in 2019, this video now seems made for a dystopian sci-fi narrative. It leaves quite an impression to see an original artifact demonstrating the birth of modern American plastic come to life before your very eyes.

As the Smithsonian notes, “the completely unnatural features of nylon may not play as well in the marketplace today, but in 1940, on the heels of the Great Depression, the ability to dominate the elements through chemistry energized a nation weary of economic and agricultural uncertainty.”

Thus, one of the biggest effects of nylon production was (ironically?) to create hope. When people saw new materials being invented, they were hopeful it meant the U.S. was on the road to recovery following the “economic doldrums” of the Great Depression.

It wasn’t until the 1960s when plastic was first observed in the ocean, that consumers finally began to wake up from their 20-year plastic haze. The advent of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, and some other highly publicized natural disasters brought greater attention to the environment in the 1960s.

The Science History Institute notes, “Plastic’s reputation fell further in the 1970s and 1980s as anxiety about waste increased. Plastic became a special target because, while so many plastic products are disposable, plastic lasts forever in the environment.”

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of five large gyres of ocean plastic; as of November, it’s estimated to have 87,000 TONS of plastic floating in it: Harvard University source here. As you can see, 35% of that is estimated to come from synthetic textiles like nylon.

In the 1980s, it was actually the plastics industry that brought about common municipal recycling in response to growing concern. They encouraged cities and communities to collect and process the materials as part of their waste-management programs. However, that leads to where we are now–still struggling to improve recycling as our waste ends up in the wild anyway.

The most striking thing to me is, the peak of this hopeful, idealistic plastics boom only lasted a relatively short time before people became concerned (1940-1960). Yet, it’s almost 60 years after that (1960-2020) and we’ve somehow just continued to make it worse?

According to this 2018 article in Fast Company, plastic is a somewhat misguided term to describe long-chain polymers derived from petroleum or natural gas. Until the last five or six years, “polymer product designers have typically not considered what will happen after the end of their product’s initial lifetime. This is beginning to change, and this issue will require increasing focus in the years ahead.

Specifically with regard to textiles, more than 70 million tons of this type of plastic are used per year in fabrics, with 90 percent of it being produced in Asia… “As in the case of packaging, textiles are not commonly recycled. The average U.S. citizen generates over 90 pounds of textile waste each year.”

Womp, womp. Stay tuned for my next article on how to eliminate the plastic in your wardrobe!!

The End

References:
–Beckman, E. (2018, August 13). “A brief history of plastic, design’s favorite material.” Fast
Company. Retrieved from: https://www.fastcompany.com/90217212/a-brief-history-of-
plastic-designs-favorite-material
–Cutlip, K. (2015, May 11). “How 75 years ago nylon stockings changed the world.”
Smithsonian.com. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-
institution/how-75-years-ago-nylon-stockings-changed-world-180955219/
–Hermes, M.E. (1996). Enough for One Lifetime: Wallace Carothers, Inventor of Nylon.
Washington, DC: American Chemical Society and American Chemical Heritage Foundation.
–New York Times. (1938, October 30). “Du Pont discloses new yarn details.”
–Kativa, H.S. (2016, October 3). “Synthetic threads: Synthetic fibers not only changed the
fashion industry; they changed how women lived their lives.”Distillations. Science History
Institute. Retrieved from https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/synthetic-threads
–Pegex, Hazardous Waste Experts (2017, April 21). “Post-consumer and post-industrial nylon
recycling.” Retrieved from: https://www.hazardouswasteexperts.com/post-consumer-and-
post-industrial-nylon-recycling/
–Science History Institute (nd). “The History and Future of Plastics.” Retrieved from:
https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics
–Spivack, E. (2012, September 4). Stocking series, part 1: Wartime rationing and nylon riots.
Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture-
series-part-1-wartime-rationing-and-nylon-riots.
–Wolfe, A.J. (2008). Nylon: A revolution in textiles. Distillations. Science History Institute.
Retrieved from https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/nylon-a-revolution-in-textiles

Images
–Nylon Yarn Inspection at DuPont Facility, 1938. Joseph X. Labovsky Collection of Nylon
Photographs and Ephemera, Box 2. Science History Institute. Philadelphia.
https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/2801pg41b.
–Woman helps DuPont employee demonstrate nylon stockings, 1939. 984259_121912_041,
27/159, DuPont Textile Fibers Product Information photographs (Accession 1984.259),
Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum and Library,
Wilmington, DE 19807
–Wallace Carothers
— Feeding Nylon Chips into Five-Position Spinning Machine, 1938. Joseph X. Labovsky
Collection of Nylon Photographs and Ephemera, Box 2. Science History Institute.
Philadelphia. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/3t945q85r.
–Inspecting bristles for toothbrushes, 1937. 1972341_1241, 5/4 number, DuPont Company
Product Information photographs (Accession 1972.341), Audiovisual Collections and Digital
Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE 19807

Disclosure:
–My primary goal is to encourage readers to reduce, reuse, and become part of the zero-waste movement. I am an imperfect human like everyone else, so part of my journey with this project will be to share what I learn as I try new things myself and work toward a zero-waste lifestyle.
–Products I suggest are based solely on my own personal thoughts, and I am not a health or environmental professional. As always please seek the relevant and appropriate professional/medical advice for your lifestyle as needed.

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