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The Troubled Genius Behind Nylon

The Troubled Genius Behind Nylon

By Sean Braswell



Because chances are your day will involve nylon, even if you don’t wear pantyhose.

By Sean Braswell

The week Nazi tanks began their march through the Low Countries en route to Paris, hosiery counters across America were preparing for an invasion of a different sort. On May 15, 1940, on what would be termed N-Day or Nylon Day, millions of American women from coast to coast queued up in lines for an unveiling that even Apple could only dream of today. Why the frenzy? For the chance to buy a pair of $1.25 nylon stockings — the miracle synthetic fabric developed in a DuPont lab 80 years ago this month and the brainchild of an ex-Harvard chemist who never lived to see the riots, or the revenues, generated by his wondrous invention.

For centuries, humankind had relied on fabrics produced from natural fibers, most notably silk, laboriously harvested from the cocoons of fattened silkworms. But silk — literally worth its weight in gold — was expensive, which is why, come the 20th century, research chemists yearned, according to professor and chemist Matthew E. Hermes, “for a material like silk … for a yarn not held bondage to the plump Eastern silkworm.” In Enough for One Lifetime: Wallace Carothers, Inventor of Nylon, Hermes describes the mammoth quest initiated by the Delaware-based DuPont Company in 1927 to develop cheap artificial materials and its bid to enlist the country’s best research scientists to help.

Wallace Carothers would not live to see his life’s work become DuPont’s most profitable product.

DuPont’s prize catch was Wallace Carothers, PhD, a 31-year-old Harvard instructor to whom the company offered $6,000 per year — twice his teaching salary — to abandon the ivory tower in 1928. The prospect of doing “pure research” at DuPont appealed to the Iowa-born chemist, so precocious that he had been asked to teach his fellow students at Missouri’s Tarkio College even before he had graduated. Carothers had been studying plant fibers, including cellulose (the basis for cotton and rayon), and believed he could create a durable synthetic fiber from chemical compounds, provided he could evaporate enough water to allow long polymer chains to form.  

Carothers may have been brilliant, but he was also prone to depression and drinking, and was said to have kept a cyanide capsule on his watch chain. By the spring of 1934, after years of experiments, the troubled researcher succeeded in developing a series of new polymers, including the one that would become the basis for nylon. By the summer, however, Wallace Carothers had disappeared.

A woman buys nylons from an automated machine in the 1950's.

A woman buys nylon stockings from an automated machine in the 1950s.

Source Getty

He eventually turned up at a Baltimore psychiatric clinic, where he would spend several months before returning to the lab and, on February 28, 1935, unveil a polyamide known as polymer 6-6 that was strong, elastic and heat-resistant — precisely the type of artificial fruit DuPont had hoped its $27 million research binge would produce. The company quickly patented the fiber, later giving it the trade name “nylon.” The fiber’s first commercial application was toothbrush bristles, but it didn’t take long for DuPont to realize that women’s hosiery was the optimal candidate for its new stretchable, washable material, and stockings made from the world’s first synthetic fabric debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

With hemlines rising, stockings had become an increasingly essential women’s accessory, but those made from silk and rayon were pricey, difficult to clean and easy to snag. In 1940, as Susannah Hadley writes in Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution, DuPont launched a full-throttle marketing campaign with a nationwide radio broadcast designed to stoke the hysteria of the expectant public. It worked. The stampede that descended on hosiery counters on Nylon Day was unprecedented. Crowds waited for hours, and customers could only buy one pair — after sales assistants were warned not to sell a second pair, “not even if your grandmother wants it.” About 4 million pairs of nylon stockings sold out within two days. In the succeeding months, nylons would turn up in roadside kiosks and vending machines as “nylon mania” raged on.

Wallace Carothers, however, would not live to see his life’s work become DuPont’s most profitable product, nor the success of his other research (he also invented neoprene). In April 1937, two days after his 41st birthday, he committed suicide in a Philadelphia hotel room by drinking lemon juice in which he had dissolved a capsule of cyanide. He would not see — once the U.S. entered World War II — nylon made into parachutes, tents, ropes, or even fuel tanks, nor would he witness the long-legged models and stars like Betty Grable (whose gams were famously insured for $1 million) peel down their stockings “for Uncle Sam.”

After the war, which had suspended sales of nylons, the stockings returned to stores and “nylon riots” erupted once again. In the ensuing decades, nylon would appear in carpeting, clothing, linens, tires, umbrellas and bulletproof vests. It would mask bank robbers’ faces, make quarterback Joe Namath’s banged-up legs “look like a million dollars” and even land on the moon (in the form of the U.S. flag planted by Apollo astronauts). Now that’s a product with legs.

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