9. Nylon Stockings
In 1935, at the experimental labs of the DuPont Corporation, a brilliant research chemist named Walter Carothers was aimlessly playing around with some super-polymers. That’s when he noticed that, if he combined them with just the right amount of water, he could produce strong, flexible fibers. Carothers’s new material was named “nylon,” and it quickly became a sensation. Nylon stockings, stronger and easier to maintain than the traditional silk versions, became a must-have item for women everywhere—the initial run of four million pairs sold out in under two days. People just couldn’t get enough of the new wonder fabric.
Then World War II broke out, and the nation’s entire nylon production was requisitioned to make parachutes and other military gear. The black market price of nylon stockings shot up to $20 a pair. Women took to drawing seams on their legs with paint, to give the impression that they could afford a pair. The stocking shortage became a hated symbol of wartime austerity. When the conflict ended, DuPont announced it would begin producing civilian nylon again, which created a huge stir. “Nylons for Christmas” became a popular slogan, as anticipation skyrocketed.
It was a disaster. DuPont had severely overestimated how quickly it would be able to refocus production, and when a small number of stockings went on limited sale, riots erupted across the country. In Pittsburgh, 40,000 women lined up for almost two kilometers (1 mi) for only 13,000 pairs of stockings. Elsewhere, enraged mobs of fashion-frenzied women broke into department stores, smashed windows, and fought each other tooth-and-nail over the precious pairs of nylons. Crazed citizens accused DuPont of deliberately restricting supply to make a profit, and the company was forced to work overtime to get supply back up to pre-war levels. As more nylons became available, the riots eventually died out, having still done more damage to the 1940s American cities than the Japanese ever managed.