Because of the public-relations fanfare surrounding the debut of nylon stockings, there is no ambiguity concerning their origin. Perhaps there should have been scepticism, though, of the early claim that a pair of stockings would “last forever.”
The story begins on October 27, 1938, when the Du Pont chemical company announced the development of a new synthetic material, nylon, “passing in strength and elasticity any previously known textile fibres.” On the one hand, the breakthrough meant that the hosiery industry would no longer be periodically jeopardised by shortages of raw silk for silk stockings. But manufacturers also feared that truly indestructible stockings would quickly bankrupt the industry. While the “miracle yarn” was displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair, women across America eagerly awaited the new nylon stockings. Test wearers were quoted as saying the garments endured “unbelievable hours of performance.”
Du Pont had shipped selected hosiery manufacturers spools of nylon yarn, which they agreed to knit according to company specifications. The mills then allotted nylon stockings to certain stores, on the promise that none be sold before “Nylon Day,” slated as May 15 of that year, 1940.
The hysteria that had been mounting across the country erupted early on that mid-May morning. Newspapers reported that no consumer item in history ever caused such nationwide pandemonium. Women queued up hours before store doors opened. Hosiery departments were stampeded for their limited stock of nylon stockings. In many stores, near riots broke out. By the close of that year, three million dozen pairs of women’s nylons had been sold—and that number could have been significantly higher if more stockings were available.
At first, the miracle nylons did appear to be virtually indestructible. Certainly that was true in comparison to delicate silk stockings. And it was also true because, due to nylons’ scarcity, women doubtless treated the one or two pairs they managed to buy with greater care than they did silk stockings.
In a remarkably short time, silk stockings were virtually obsolete. And nylon stockings became simply “nylons.” Women after all had legs, and never before in history were they so publicly displayed and admired.