Nylon is a signature feature in most of our favorite articles of clothing. It’s versatile, provides for stretch and can be knit into stockings or incorporated into other fabrics to create easy care and stylish fashions. However, few realize how long this plastic has been around and how innovations in its design and use are today advancing in fields as diverse as the military and X-Ray imaging. In fact, at nylon’s inception, its use in consumer clothing and textiles were not even envisioned.
Today’s Nylon is more than a fashion accessory. A new high-density Nylon compound can be used for X-Ray shielding. This Nylon material could soon replace the heavy aprons used to drape patients when X-Ray images are taken in dentists’ offices across the country. The Nylon compound provides for greater design freedom and lower cost, while also decreasing bulk and weight, and eliminating the need to use lead. This new Nylon compound can also be used in X-Ray tube components, dental X-Ray equipment and trays, nuclear medicine containers, and many other applications.
Yet, the Nylon we all know originated in 1926 in the lab of Charles M. A. Stine. The young Harvard chemist Wallace Carothers was put in charge of the Organic Chemicals Division of Stine’s DuPont lab, and quickly published a number of papers that set the terms for polymer research. One of the most promising polymers was Nylon.
In 1938 Fortune Magazine wrote that “nylon breaks the basic elements like nitrogen and carbon out of coal, air and water to create a completely new molecular structure of its own. It flouts Solomon. It is an entirely new arrangement of matter under the sun, and the first completely new synthetic fiber made by man. In over four thousand years, textiles have seen only three basic developments aside from mechanical mass production: mercerized cotton, synthetic dyes and rayon. Nylon is a fourth.” DuPont patented the fiber as nylon and patented its first commercial product in 1938—a nylon filament used in toothbrushes. Uses for the new synthetic fiber grew quickly and by 1939 nylon was exhibited in stocking form at the San Francisco Exposition and shortly thereafter became the darling of the fashion industry and women everywhere.
The American romance with nylon was cut short when the United States entered World War II in December 1941 and the War Production Board appropriated all production of nylon for military use. Given unfavorable trade relations with Asia, nylon replaced Asian silk in parachutes and found use in tires, tents, ropes, and other military supplies. The wartime cost of hose rose from $1.25 a pair to $10 and pin-up stars where known to have auctioned their own nylons for as much as $40,000 a pair in war-effort drives.
When victory was declared and the first small quantities of postwar nylon stockings were advertised, thousands of frenzied women lined up at New York department stores and the consumer love affair with the synthetic fiber began anew.