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

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Until nylon was heatset, says Smith, “all stockings and socks used to be knit to a specific size. (With stretch nylon yarn) we could make one sock that would stretch to fit a range of sizes.”

Form-fitting hosiery also played havoc with our notions of sexiness, in the view of Loretta Haroian, dean of the faculty at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco.

“Panty hose gave every woman the smooth, dancer’s-leotard look,” Haroian recalls of those heady days when panty hose were new. “But they frustrated men because generations of men always looked for a glimpse of the thigh between the girdle or garter belt and the top of the stocking.” On the other hand, panty hose gave women “an incredible sense of freedom. They were covered from the toe to the waist and perhaps didn’t have to be so careful of men catching a glimpse of their thighs.”

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Looking at present-day sociology, Haroian suspects the ‘80s return of garter belts and stockings is “a trend that young women find very sexy and men have always liked.” She further observes that the trend may be an attempt by women to encourage the situations they once sought to avoid.

Because of its low cost in relation to silk, Haroian notes that nylon allowed women of even meager means “to afford exquisitely feminine nightgowns, slips and brassieres. Even for the most common women, lingerie lost the utilitarian, Sears-catalogue look and took on the sexual seduction images that women read about in stories.”

Robert Pante, the outspoken, San Francisco-based fashion consultant, agrees. “Nylon is an erotic material,” says the author of “Dress to Win.” “It does tend to bring emphasis and a lot of attitude. It’s not a fabric that people want to touch, but it somehow radiates and gets people’s attention.”

Pante cautions the fashion-minded, however, that nylon apparel usually carries with it “lower-class consciousness.”

“Nylon is a fabric that is not loved by the upper class because it has a mentality of not being natural,” he explains. “Nylon doesn’t allow a fabric to breathe. It’s irritable if anyone’s rubbing against you. It doesn’t really caress the skin and body parts. (100% nylon garments) are a little too slippery and too harsh to be worn across the body, but when nylon is used separately--like in a strip across the chest on a beautiful sweat shirt--nylon can have a kind of New Age, next world look to it.”

But recently, nylon blended with lycra Spandex has become “the hottest thing” in active sportswear. “You cannot get enough nylon combined with lycra (Spandex) right now,” says Ruth Prodan, owner of Ruthless Fitwear, a small chain of dancewear and aerobic wear stores in Los Angeles and Orange counties. “All the shiny, slinky-fitting dresses that fit like gloves have nylon and lycra in them. . . . All the manufacturers are constantly complaining they can’t get enough.” The point, she adds, is that, when blended with Spandex, nylon “really allows today’s fitness-conscious generation to show off their bodies while still having them covered up.”

For some things, the introduction of nylon proved to be such an unequivocal advantage that natural fibers have never been used again. The nylon parachute is a case in point.

“When nylon parachutes came in during early World War II, they completely drove silk parachutes out of the marketplace,” says William Ottley, executive director of the U.S. Parachute Assn. “Silk parachutes were susceptible to damage, dampness and mildew and nylon parachutes took care of almost all these problems.”

And where carpets used to be expensive, and scarce, today they’re affordable and ubiquitous. Thanks to nylon. “The fiber revolutionized the ability to produce greater quantities at higher speeds and within affordable range to the consumer,” says Ronald E. Van Gelderen, president of the Carpet and Rug Institute.

“Nylon and the tufting construction method made it possible for every American to put carpeting on their floors. . . . About 35 years ago, probably about 15% of Americans had carpet on their floors. Now, it’s pretty close to 99%.”

While many synthetic materials used in homes give off toxic gases that can build up in poorly ventilated interiors, nylon per se is not generally a problem, according to David Rousseau, an environmental researcher and building designer who recently co-authored “Your Home, Your Health and Well Being” with Dr. William Rea and Jean Enwright.

“The base material nylon is one of the safer products,” says Rousseau. “It doesn’t seem to produce any appreciable air pollution.”

But Rousseau warns that nylon carpeting may be treated with dyes, stain-resistant agents or crease-resistant agents that do give off substances that create indoor air pollution.

Historian William H. McNeill, professor emeritus of history at the University of Chicago and author of “Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society Since A. D. 1000,” observes that nylon has thus far turned out to be a relatively benign technology that markedly improved a wide variety of products.

In the Future

“I’m not aware of any negative results that it’s caused cancer or anything,” says McNeill. “The difficulty with other things is that there were unforeseen side effects. . . . People have always questioned the advantages of new technologies in a far-reaching way. That’s not new. What is new is the intensity of our communications system so that anything that starts to threaten human life particularly gets an enormous play.”

But K. Eric Drexler, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s computer science department, questions if society’s communications systems are really able to provide adequate cost/benefit analyses of new technologies.

“In practice, our society does such a poor job of making the prices for things reflect their full costs (to society) that the real benefits or non-benefits of a particular product are often a matter of controversy and very hard to judge,” he says.

One of the most fascinating and futuristic spinoffs for the polymer technology that created nylon is the subject of Drexler’s book, “Engines of Creation,” which explores “nanotechnology.”

“Polymers are molecular chains of sub-units,” Drexler says. “Chemists have learned to string some of these sub-units together in specific order, but these polymers . . . can sometimes be made to fold up into molecular objects, which some argue can serve as pieces of amazingly small machines and electronic components,” he says.

“With molecular devices, one could make an entire computer the size of a bacterium, which is microscopic. So you could have . . . a microscopic computer. This would let one put more computing power in a desk-top machine than exists in the entire world today.”

This from the same technology that brought us panty hose?

“The techniques of nylon and polymer chemistry are one way of getting that result,” enthuses Drexler. “I think we’re going to get it by any one of several different means.”

It Was a Good Year

Nylon wasn’t the only big invention to debut in 1938. According to “The Second World Almanac Book of Inventions,” the year also produced: photocopying, the ball point pen, LSD and rubber-soled shoes.


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