In the autumn of 1939 songs such as "God Bless America," "The Beer Barrel Polka," and "Over the Rainbow" were popular and Bobby Riggs won the men's sngle division of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Tournament.
The Campbell Playhouse dominated the radio scene on Sunday evening, featuring such big stars as Orson Welles. And nylon stockings were introduced in America.
In Wilmington, Del., E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., after 13 years of research and expenditures of $27 million, put 4,000 pairs of nylons on sale in six apparel stores. It was a trail runner.
By one o'clock every single stocking had been sold, with customers three deep at the counters and getting uglier by the moment. "Right sheer," they screamed, and motioned to get a clerk's attention. It didn't seem fair that so many had to be denied.
Of course cstomers could still buy rayon and silk stockings, but the fabrics had little elasticity and were not as soft and long-wearing. Silk, moreover, wrinkled and was expensive.
Nor was silk American. It was Japan's main export, with some 90 million pounds, 85 percent of Japan's production, consumed annually in the United States for stockings alone. As diplomatic relations between the two countries deteriorated in the 1930s, the price of silk fluctuated wildly, from lows of about $1.50 a pound to nearly $3.
After nylon hosiery was introduced, Japanese silk sold for $2.79 a pound as compared with $4.27 for nylon. Nylon got more competitive as the United States became enmeshed in squabbles with Tokyo.
To be sure, nylon wasn't perfect, although it could be used for items as diverse as slips and toothbrushes. It was originally dubbed no-run. (No-run spelled backwards was nuron, which became nylon). But it wasn't no-run. Sometimes women who wore nylons in 1939 broke out in a rash, presumably because of a dye. Nylons, like other hosiery of the time, also had a tendency to sag.
Then there was the problem of shortages, especially after World War II broke out and the material was adapted to the needs of the armed services. One parachute used as much nylon as thirty-six pairs of hose. Used nylons, in run or no-run condition, could be sold as scrap to the government. Betty Grable sold a pair for $40,000 to launch a War Bond campaign.
In retrospect, had Wallace Hume Carothers, the inventor of nylon, perfected his research earlier, World War II might not have occurred. The United States might have used the leverage of nylon's potential and silk's unattractiveness to string along the Japanese. It might have quarantined Japanese aggression with nylon surgical masks and hose. Or pitted the best 51-gauge nylons with their best silk counterpart. Winner take all, on the basis of runs, slips, and errors.
In time nylons would cover the land, including the dollar bill, its fibers of silk replaced with nylon by the Treasury in 1941. Nylon was American, with strands for a great national symphony: a spacious protein, derived from waves of water, coal, and air. With majestic filaments as strong as steel and as fluted as a spider's web. And crowned with a beautiful luster, from knee to shining knee.