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How Nylon Changed the World : 50 Years Ago Today, It Reshaped the Way We Live--and Think

October 27, 1988|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

Amazing, how a simple rearrangement of molecules can change a whole way of living.

Fifty years ago today, Du Pont announced that it could transform air, water and coal into a strange new substance. Nylon. At the time, no one suspected this clever scientific trick would usher in "the materials revolution," much less put sexy lingerie in the bedrooms of K mart shoppers.

Or revolutionize travel, virtually eliminate ironing, allow more of us to carpet our homes, wear stockings without garters and even, if we wish, scale mountains with a tent stuffed inside a knapsack.

As it turned out, the world's first totally man-made fiber revolutionized entire industries and the way we live. Some would even argue that it has divided society along class lines by heightening the distinctions between the upper class, which tends to favor natural fibers, and lower-class consumers of cheaper synthetic goods.

What's more, nylon served as the granddaddy to later "unnatural" fibers such as Teflon (the slippery fiber often used to describe the Reagan presidency), polyester (the No. 1-selling synthetic fiber) and Spandex (the stretchy stuff often teamed with nylon so trendy sportswear can look as if it's been sprayed onto the body).

But according to Arnold Thackray, director of Philadelphia's Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, the discovery of nylon has led to far more than second-skin fabrics and the safety netting used on space shuttles.

"The intellectual revolution that led to nylon also led to the work with recombinant DNA and to the biotechnology of today and tomorrow," says Thackray, who points out that, "just like nylon, DNA is a polymer." He adds that the work with organic polymers is likely to create new methods of "curing disease and having healthier human beings."

But along with these profundities, consider the nylon-induced changes in the more mundane ways we live our lives.

For one thing, it has gotten many of us out of airport baggage-claim areas.

The invention of nylon, says Robert Ermatinger, executive vice president of the Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers of America, "led to the introduction of carry-on luggage. All the lightweight luggage (made of nylon) made this (mode of travel) possible."

Not surprisingly, as carry-ons eliminated long waits in airports, they became more and more the luggage of choice in our fast-paced age. Today, about two-thirds of all luggage manufactured throughout the world is made of nylon, says Ermatinger.

And it no longer comes exclusively in low-key browns, blacks, grays and navys, thanks largely to nylon. Ermatinger points out that because nylon takes dye better than leather or natural fabrics, today's otherwise beleaguered travelers are the beneficiaries of luggage with more vibrant coloring and fabric stylings.

But luggage was a relative late-comer to nylon; the fiber didn't show up on our suitcases, totes and garment bags until about 20 years ago.

The filament was initially used for toothbrush bristles, fishing line and surgical sutures, according to Du Pont spokeswoman Faith Wohl. Perhaps nylon's best-known use was introduced in 1939, when nylon stockings were first sold to the public in Wilmington, Del. at $1.15 to $1.35 per pair (Silk stockings typically sold for 66 cents a pair at the time).

It was a short-lived burst of glory. Soon thereafter, the United States entered World War II and nylon was classified as an essential material, to be manufactured exclusively for military applications such as parachute cloth, ropes and tent fabric.

Nylon stockings--touted as having the "strength of steel and the sheerness of cobwebs"--went back on the market in 1945, provoking what are now known as "the nylon riots."

In the Du Pont archives, for example, there are photos of an estimated 10,000 shoppers in San Francisco waiting to get into one store advertising nylons for sale. The sale was reportedly called off after one of the store windows was broken by the force of the crowd and several women fainted. Similar mobs attacked other stores throughout the country.

Stronger Than Silk

Why such uproars? Even in its early incarnations, nylon was stronger than silk and far more sheer than cotton or wool hosiery, says Sid Smith, president of the National Assn. of Hosiery Manufacturers. "Nylon revolutionized the hosiery business," he claims.

And by the mid-1950s, nylon panty hose had began to free women from stockings held up by garters. "If it weren't for a stretch yarn like nylon, we wouldn't be able to make panty hose," Smith says. "Panty hose fit 50% of the body without any alterations. That's a unique challenge for any type of apparel."

A similar revolution occurred with socks. That's because nylon can be heatset to make its yarns coil and stretch much like telephone cords, thus allowing a person with large feet to wear the socks of someone with much tinier feet--without punching out the toes.

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