The synthetic fiber nylon was invented at the E.I. duPont de Nemours Company in Delaware,and nylon stockings became a big hit as soon as they were released. After a public supply cut-off during World War II, nylon stockings soared back in popularity more than ever. Nylon remains an important material today, used in a multitude of products.
The invention of nylon at E.I. duPont de Nemours, Inc. in 1934 began the explosion of completely synthetic materials that imitate natural materials into the fabric market. Nylon was created entirely from petrochemicals, unlike the previous artificial fabrics rayon and acetate, which were plant-based. Wallace Hume Carothers generally receives recognition for the invention, but another DuPont employee may have been the actual inventor. Julian Hill worked for Carothers, and had spent much time developing a process in which a long fiber with a silky texture could be created of carbon polymers. Carothers, who probably was afflicted with a severe bipolar condition, committed suicide in 1937, and the company credited the invention of nylon to him. Carothers had previously created neoprene, a synthetic rubber.
DuPont designed nylon as a synthetic silk for women’s stockings. The material was intended to be less expensive while adding beneficial qualities such as strength and insulation, in addition to being lightweight and just as attractive as silk. Nylon and nylon stockings were introduced to the public in 1939 at the World’s Fair in New York. Commercial production began that year and nylon stockings were available throughout the country by 1940. They soon were nicknamed “nylons.” Like silk stockings, nylons reached from feet to mid-thigh, and were fastened with garters and a belt. The one-piece apparatus called “panty hose” was not introduced until the 1960s. Over 72,000 pairs of nylon stockings were purchased in the U.S. on the first day they were released, and 64 million in the first year. They were inexpensive and wrinkle-free, and were purported to be less prone to runs and snags, although that turned out to be a false claim. Nylon was called a “miracle fiber.”
Then almost as suddenly as they appeared, nylon stockings were gone from the marketplace. The U.S. entered World War II at the end of 1941 and the supply of nylon as well as silk was taken over by the War Production Board to assist in making supplies. Nylon was used in parachutes, tents, ropes, clothing and even tires. Nylon hosiery, which had been selling for $1.25 a pair, now went for upwards of $10 in the black market.
After the war ended in 1945, nylon stockings started to be sold in stores once again, and thousands of women stood in line to buy the first ones available. In New York, women bought Macy’s entire stock of 50,000 pairs in 6 hours. It took 3 years for supply to catch up with demand.
Nylon is used in an enormous number of products today, including basketball nets, carpeting, clothing, fishing lines, strings for guitars and other musical instruments, surgical sutures, tennis racquet strings, vehicle upholstery and many others. Nylon has even been to the moon. The astronauts who landed there in 1969 wore space suits containing nylon fibers and the flag that Neil Armstrong planted was made of nylon.
References and ResourcesHistory of various manufactured fibers
Extensive history of nylon development at DuPont