They once thought about calling it "Duparooh," an anagram for "Du Pont pulls a rabbit out of a hat."
Somebody else suggested "Wacara," a condensation of the name of the fiber's inventor, Wallace Carothers. A few scientists thought the chemical name "Fiber 66" was swell. Even Lammot du Pont, president of the Du Pont Co., had an idea: "Delawear. Like the state," he said. "Only spelled differently."Thank goodness none of these names took hold. Imagine going up to a hosiery counter today and asking for a pair of Delawears. The saleslady would go screaming for security! Far better that company execs kept working on the problem and finally settled on "nylon," an outgrowth of the practical term "no-run." The name sounded good then. It still sounds good. And, believe it or not, half a century has passed since the title - and the revolutionary new material - came into being.
That's right, nylon is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Recently, in honor of the occasion, a special Hanes hosiery exhibit came to Salt Lake City and was on display at Nordstrom in the Crossroads Plaza. The display, called the Heritage Collection, featured everything from sensible lisle to daring black silk stockings and took the viewer on a stylish walk through history.
The stockings depicting different eras were framed and standing on easels in the hosiery department of the downtown store. As customers reflected on what used to be, Jane Zahler, Du Pont's fiber consultant, offered interesting comments about hose - the one item no well-dressed woman in the 1980s can get along without.
Women probably would still be wearing fragile silk and heavy cotton hosiery, she noted, if Dr. Wallace B. Carothers hadn't left his teaching job at Harvard to join Du Pont's research program. The 31-year-old organic chemist and a brilliant staff began investigating the intriguing world of polymers. By 1930, they'd discovered neoprene synthetic rubber, and shortly thereafter reached another scientific milestone - the synthesis of a molten polymer that could be drawn into fibers.
Du Pont encouraged the team to develop a superpolymer that could be used in the manufacturing of synthetic textile fibers. And in 1935, Fiber 66, so named to denote the number of carbon atoms in its components, was born.
Carothers went on to explore other polymers, and a group of new scientists continued to refine 66 for commercial purposes. The resulting product was nylon.
What a stir nylon caused!
The entire textile industry was elated. At last there was an American synthetic that could steal away the Oriental silk monopoly. As the fiber was perfected, chemical components and manufacturing methods were guarded like national secrets. The first stockings came out looking long and skinny - and, frankly, quite horrible. Refinement continued.
By 1939 nylon, much improved, was ready to make its big public debut.
Historians report that the Du Pont display featuring mechanical hands stretching a nylon stocking to demonstrate its strength and elasticity was one of the most popular exhibits at the San Francisco World's Fair. And at the New York World's Fair, excitement about nylon shifted into really high gear. The exhibit was housed in a futuristic-looking structure, showed how nylons were knitted and then capped everything off by having pretty models wear the hose.
Du Pont has the best leg show at the fair, a newspaper report of the day said.
Today, the leg show goes on - and numerous manufacturers are involved in the booming American hosiery industry. With every season, in fact, scads of new hosiery styles are introduced. Most women have dozens upon dozens of hose in their accessory wardrobes and think nothing of buying a box or two of their daily favorites at a time. But in the early days, this was not the case. Indeed, when nylons were introduced to the consumer back in the '40s, their numbers were few and getting a package was difficult. Many retailers limited sales to two pair per customer, and price wars broke out in New York among top stores such as Macy's, Gimbels and Bloomingdale's.
Du Pont rapidly stepped up production.
Then came World War II. The nylon output was commandeered by the U.S. government for use in parachutes, rope, aircraft tires and tents. Ladies agreed that the move was necessary. But many said they missed nylon more than the men in their lives who were serving overseas.
Stars such as Betty Grable made big money for the war effort by auctioning off scarce pairs of hose for as much as $40,000.
Nylons began trickling back into the market very slowly in late 1945.
There were scarcely enough, though, to meet even a fraction of the demand. Macy's in New York sold its full stock of 50,000 pair in six hours. Shrieking women, denied stockings after waiting so long, were furious and the big store ran an ad of apology telling the customers to please, please be patient.
Production of nylon increased sufficiently by 1948, fashion historians say, to return peace to the hosiery counter.
It's no wonder that women were so determined to have their nylons. Stockings prior to the miracle fiber's invention didn't measure up even though the styles and materials used early on are historically interesting.
Most stockings around the turn of the century were made of heavy cotton and lisle for daytime. They were hot and bulky and always seemed to bag. For special occasions, women wore black silk hose that often were hand embroidered. But affording silk hose wasn't easy in Great Granny's time. Many women could only dream of being that fashionable.
In the early days of the 1900s, according to Hanes archives, the Gibson Girl look was going strong. Skirts hovered at shoe top length, and stockings in lisle and silk still were popular, often designed to match shoes or outfit.
From 1910 to 1920, the suffragette movement was in the national spotlight. World War I was news. Tunics and hobble skirts were in fashion, and stylish ladies wore hosiery that matched their spats. White hose were especially popular in summer.
In 1920-30, the flapper era was at its height. Skirts went short and silk stockings, sometimes provocatively rolled, took over.
The Depression years hit America from 1930-40. The silk boycott grew. Skirts went longer. Rayon hose and mesh versions were introduced. And Du Pont experimented with nylon.
From 1940 to 1950, nylon hosiery made big news. The first nylons, Hanes archivists point out, were 45 gauge. Far heavier than hose today. After the war, when nylon virtually disappeared from the retail fashion scene, sheer hose returned, and nylon quickly outsold silk.
Super-sheer hosiery dominated in the 1950s. Hanes pioneered seamless stockings, and stretch yarns opened new doors. Tights appeared on the fashion scene.
In 1960, fashion went to all lengths. Midi, maxi, mini. Pantyhose, necessitated by the short lengths, revolutionized the hosiery business again. Psychedelic colors bowed in, and knee-high stockings, which worked well under pantsuits, were popular.
In recent years, stockings have continued to expand their fashionable tendencies. Ultra, ultra sheer and glittery hose are popular for evening. Color and texture are everywhere in the market. Opaques hide leg flaws and look great with shorter hems. And Lycra, one of the most revolutionary things to happen to hosiery, has made the fit and appearance of stockings sleeker and sexier than ever.
What about the future?
Stockings will grow prettier and the array will continue to increase, predict Du Pont representatives. The speed with which they're turned out will also be greater. Consider: 20 years ago it took 12 minutes to knit one stocking tube. Today a stocking tube can be produced every 45 seconds.
No wonder Wallace Carothers and his fellow scientists who dreamed up Fiber 66 - today's nylon - called the material "amazing . . . with unlimited potential."