Researchers at DuPont Co. just couldn't stop thinking about women's legs. This obsession peaked on May 15, 1940, when 5 million pairs of women's stockings made with DuPont's nylon resin were sold in a single day.
That event remains a watershed mark in the public's acceptance of plastic as part of everyday life. In late 1938, DuPont research chief Charles Stine had introduced the product, hyping nylon to a gathering of women's clubs as “strong as steel, as fine as a spider's web, yet more elastic than any of the common natural fibers.”
Nylon stockings were displayed at the 1939 New York World's Fair. DuPont's exhibit at that event featured Princess Plastics, an attractive young female model dressed from head-to-toe in synthetic products made by DuPont. The biggest nylon promotion, quite literally, took place in Los Angeles, where a 35-foot-high, garter-clad replica of the leg of actress Marie Wilson was displayed.
The product — whose development was led by DuPont chemist Wallace Carothers — was lucrative for Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont, which had launched commercial production at an $8.5 million plant in Seaford, Del., in 1939. Within seven months of its debut, nylon had earned DuPont a $3 million profit, completely paying off the project's research and development cost.
Names rejected by DuPont before nylon was selected include Dela¼wear, Du¼silk, Moor¼-sheen and Silkex. DuPont had decided not to trademark the term “nylon,” partly as a result of losing a 1938 lawsuit to Sylvania Co. over the term “cellophane.” In its developmental days, nylon was referred to as Fiber 66.
During World War II, DuPont diverted nylon production to the war effort, where it was used in parachutes, ropes and tents for the U.S military. Stockings were hard to find in war years — a parachute used as much nylon as 2,300 pairs of stockings.
When nylon went back into the stocking market after the war, pent-up demand resulted in lines outside of stores in San Francisco when the products went back on sale in 1946. In February of that year, Macy's took out an ad in The New York Times apologizing to customers for running out of nylons. The store had sold 50,000 pairs in less than six hours Feb. 5.
DuPont had been in plastics for 25 years before nylon made its commercial debut, historian Adrian Kinnane wrote in DuPont: From the Banks of the Brandywine to Miracles of Science, a company history published in 2002.
In 1915, DuPont bought Arlington Co., a New Jersey-based plastic maker, for $6.7 million. The deal gave DuPont a 40 percent share of the U.S. plastic market. Arlington made Pyra¼lin, a cellulose nitrate used in shirt collars, cuffs, combs, eyeglass frames and plastic side curtains for early autos. Du¼Pont followed that buy 10 years later with Viscoloid Co., a similar firm in Leo¼minster, Mass.
DuPont produced such plastics as Dacron polyester, Orlon acrylic fiber, Delrin acetal and Zytel high-performance nylon.