The nylon riots -- women punching each other and breaking windows to get nylon stockings in the 1940s -- were the peak of the Golden Age of Plastics in America, an age E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. celebrated yesterday with a four-country satellite-hookup big-screen press conference that evoked all the electrified gimcrackery of the World of Tomorrow as prophesied by utopian dreamers from about 1920 to 1950.
The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the invention of nylon and Teflon -- accidents of technology that changed the world. Teflon wouldn't be famous until the stick-free frying pans of the early 1960s, and it wouldn't be a metaphor until Ronald Reagan was branded "the Teflon president" because criticisms don't seem to stick to him. But in the case of nylon, the impact was instantaneous. Within two years, women fought in scenes like one recorded on film and shown by Du Pont at the National Press Club -- two women wrestling over a pair of stockings while a saleswoman looks on in open-mouthed astonishment.
Another clip showed Bob Hope listening to the sound of screaming backstage, and then commenting to the audience: "They must have nylons back there."
What could have possessed these women?
"Women Risk Life and Limb in Bitter Battle for Nylons," said a headline in the Augusta, Ga., Chronicle.
"30,000 Women Join in Rush for Nylons," said The New York Times.
"Two Windows Broken by Mob at G St. Store," said The Washington Post after a nylon riot on March 11, 1946.
The plastics and synthetics industry would never create such excitement again.
In fact, Julian W. Hill, who aided Wallace H. Carothers in inventing nylon, sat around after the press conference and talked about how much things have changed since that age when the future looked so bright -- an age in which a Du Pont ad would ask: "Where to tomorrow, Mr. Chemist?" and answer it: "To a thousand untouched shores. To a land of tomorrow where rain won't wet your clothes, where everyone gets his vitamins ... where life is easier, happier, and more complete in ways that can't be dreamed of today."
Now, at 83, Hill said: "I think the human race is going to perish by being smothered in plastic. You have all these goddam plastic bags wrapping the garbage up where I have a summer place in Martha's Vineyard, and so nothing breaks down. It makes me wonder sometimes. I've always been a birdwatcher and interested in nature. I get all these magazines and there's nothing in them but horror stories. Everywhere I look is a crumpled piece of plastic. My God, even the fast-food places, you get a Styrofoam box this big."
This is the price of the triumph of plastic, a monstrous usurper. We have made more of it than we've made of steel since 1979, according to the industry. About 8 billion pounds of nylon fiber and 1.4 billion pounds of nylon resin get made very year, for instance, and this doesn't count the endless list of plastics and synthetics whose names read like a roll call at a Martian high school: Ban-Lon, Lycra, Zepel, Fortrel, Antron, Formica, Orlon, Thermax, Hytrel, Kevlar, Delrin, Dacron ...
Nowadays, writes Jeffrey L. Meikle, a University of Texas professor who is working on a history of plastics in American culture, "From garbage bags to computer housings, from disposable razors to automobile interiors, we take them for granted. Still, there is something unsettling about plastics. In the opening scene of 'The Graduate,' that highly popular film from 1967, a middle-aged businessman mystifies young Dustin Hoffman by telling him, 'I just want to say one word to you. Just one word ... Plastics.' Nervous laughter filled the theaters nearly twenty years ago, and the memory now evokes nervous chuckles, but few of us could say precisely why. We no longer even use the word 'plastic' to mean fake or phony as some of us once did, but it retains the power of making us ill at ease."
This uneasiness dates back to the 1860s, when John Wesley Hyatt made celluloid from nitrocellulose and camphor. The idea was to imitate natural products with it: ivory brush handles, linen collars and so on. In 1907, when Leo Baeekland invented Bakelite, he intended it as a cheap substitute for varnish or lacquer that could make "cheap, porous soft wood" into wood "as hard as mahogany or ebony." So synthetics got the reputation as shabby ersatz substitutes for something real.
At the same time, though, synthetics were riding into the public imagination on the foaming charger of science.
In 1907, Everybody's Magazine was predicting that it wouldn't stop until scientists made "a loaf of bread ... or a beefsteak" from "a lump of coal, a glass of water, and a whiff of atmosphere." Startled by German scientific accomplishments during World War I, Americans began a crusade to build a better world through chemistry. A proselytizer named E.E. Slosson said that in coal lurked the secrets of synthesizing precious materials and making them "the common property of the masses." This theme of building a better democracy through plastics would last at least into the 1950s -- witness the Washington Post editorial in 1951 celebrating the advent of nylon fur under the headline "Mink for the Masses."
Vinyl arrived in phonograph records, dentures and the lining of beer cans starting in 1928, and at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition of 1933, a "house of the future" had walls, floor and furniture made of vinyl. Plastic dishes made by the American Cyanamid Co. arrived in 1929 under the name of Beetleware. Du Pont brought us cellophane in 1927. Lucite and Plexiglas were the first plastics to be made frompetroleum. Plastics helped give rise to the concept of industrial design in the 1930s, when Franklin E. Brill of General Plastics urged that manufacturers stop using the stuff to imitate and instead sell it as itself.
It was the perfect material for modernism, machine-production and streamlining. Business Week wrote in 1935: "Modernistic trends have greatly boosted the use of plastic in building, furniture and decoration, and contrariwise, plastics by their beauty have boosted modernism." Popular Mechanics proclaimed a "Plastics Age" and predicted that "the American of tomorrow ... clothed in plastics from head to foot ... will live in a plastics house, drive a plastics auto and fly in a plastics airplane."
Science, modernism, democracy, the Plastics Age: These joined with the patriotic refusal to buy Japanese silk and the Age of Legs, as exemplified by Hollywood's Betty Grable, to create the nylon stocking riots of the early 1940s. The advantage of nylon over both rayon -- an earlier semisynthetic -- and silk was that it didn't sag, and it was believed not to run when snagged. (The word "nylon" comes from "no-run" spelled backwards and then changed.) The stockings first went on mass view at the World's Fair of 1939. Du Pont couldn't make them fast enough, once they got to the stores. Then nylon was declared a strategic material in World War II, for parachutes among other things, and there were no nylons at all until 1945, with the exception of black-market stockings that could sell for as much as $10 a pair -- a lot of money in the 1940s. Legend that persists to this day has it that an American soldier offering a pair of nylons could obtain anything he wanted from a woman in a war zone.
So what went wrong? Why did plastics fall from grace in the American psyche?
Historian Meikle writes that after the endless predictions of a world made better by plastics, the industry realized as early as 1943 that they wouldn't live up to expectations. Meanwhile, plastics produced for the home front were shoddy: combs dissolved in hair cream, mixing bowls splintered, utensils melted. After the war, says Meikle, "polystyrene toys were broken by 11 a.m. on Christmas morning. In 1947, there were those semitransparent raincoats that came apart."
Soon, plastics manufacturers were back to imitating marble with vinyl and wood with Formica, and the plastic-for-plastic's-sake movement was dead. That kind of modernism and fascination with science died too as Americans looked backward for historical motifs in their Cape Cod Colonial houses and traditional furniture. In 1947, House Beautiful said there was "only one good reason why you, personally, should be interested in plastics." That reason was "damp-cloth cleaning." What Meikle brands as "damp-cloth utopianism" continued while plastics huddled in their disguises, with exceptions such as Monsanto's all-plastic House of the Future, built halfway between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland at Disneyland in 1957. Monsanto had hoped to inspire mass production. The house was dismantled by hand in the '70s, after a wrecking ball proved incapable of demolishing it.
Revival and renewed condemnation came at the same time in the 1960s. The space program glamorized synthetics, and an esthetic movement came along touting foam houses, beanbag chairs of urethane foam and inflatable chairs made of transparent vinyl. And what strange polymer was it that blobbed and globbed inside the lava lamps people would stare at in cannabic enthusiasms? Andy Warhol was reported to have resolved the imitation/reality problem by saying: "It's not fake anything, it's real plastic."
But then came "The Graduate" and the word "plastic" became a synonym for "fraudulent" or "superficial," and it seemed to represent a whole generation of parents with their dreams not only of American empire but of dominating the whole natural world. Had the nylon riots been a harbinger of the material orgy of the postwar era? In 1946, an official of the Civilian Production Administration blamed a shortage of stockings on "piggish" housewives. The rioters, said a Post editorial, were "animated by the most abominable selfishness."
As early as 1963, Norman Mailer was using the word plastic to describe those omphali of postwar consciousness, the suburbs. He linked plastic to his mystical "cancer-gulch" theories, which would actually pan out when chemicals such as vinyl chloride were found to cause cancer, and plastics in general were condemned for killing nature by virtue of being "nonbiodegradable," which is to say indestructible or nearly so. (This quality was precisely what excited one author who wrote a whole book about Bakelite, praising it because it would "continue to be Bakelite till kingdom come.")
Environmentalists began to bemoan sea gulls crippled by plastic six-pack matrices, and sea turtles strangling in plastic bags. (In 1959, polyethylene drycleaning bags suffocated more than 50 children. Du Pont blamed "parental carelessness.") Yesterday, at the press conference, Du Pont Chairman R.E. Heckert had an environmentalist to contend with in the first question from the floor. He urged proper disposal, recycling and burning of plastics, and urged it with a tone that suggested he had urged it in so many words before.
Even in their heyday in the Age of Plastics, synthetics had provoked an archetypal doubt, with suggestions that making a new world out of chemicals (or, in a phrase that was repeated for decades, "coal, air and water") was a Faustian manipulation of the power of creation itself.
Industrial designer Paul T. Frankl echoed the prideful quest of the medievals when he said in 1930 that the chemical industry "today rivals alchemy." And consider the edgy punning on the Bible in 1935 when Business Week talked about "the mysterious ways in which chemical processes move, their wonders to perform." Or the Fortune magazine headline about plastics in 1936: "What Man Has Joined Together..." Or Science Digest ignoring Jesus' warning and hoping for "a world free from moth and rust." Indeed, in 1968 art critic Hilton Kramer would talk about the "almost Faustian freedom" of plastics.
Even today, a hint of shame and environmental propriety can be found in fashionable Americans who demand nothing but natural-fiber clothes to wear -- while they go off to play with their Fiberglas yachts, Kevlar squash rackets and graphite-composite skis. Of course, none of the natural-fiber folks is demanding a return to silk stockings, and what would health clubs be without all those spandex panthers prowling around the juice bar? No one complains about Kevlar bulletproof vests (though Teflon bullets have gotten a bad press). Dacron arteries don't get any complaints from environmentalists.
And, despite his fears for the environment 50 years after he helped invent nylon, Julian Hill can still say: "I tell my wife I was something better than a good scientist. I was lucky."