Nylon – the iPhone of 1939 – Turns 80: A Delaware Family Story

Nylon: The First 25 Years, was created by E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company in 1963

Eighty years ago the DuPont Company launched Nylon – a product born here in Delaware that transformed the world.

My grandfather, Pierre S. du Pont, MIT ‘38, worked as a process engineer at the Seaford Delaware plant that made the world’s first synthetic fiber.  

I too worked as a shift supervisor and process engineer making Nylon at May Plant in South Carolina in late 80s – and loved every minute of it.  My grandfather had a ton of stories as DuPont learned to make a fiber in a process that could not easily shut down.

 

The plant would quickly fill up with white fluffy yarn if the process hiccuped.  They had ‘Ghostbuster’ like vacuum packs that would suck the spare fiber up to get the process back on line.  It was comical to watch in ‘39 and in ‘89.  

One of his jobs was convincing US troops to trust new Nylon parachutes, over canvas ones, that were heavier and could be lethal if one landed in water.  It did not help that early Nylon parachutes had lots of frayed fibers. They were safe, and a lot better, but did not look that way to skeptical paratroopers.

 

Virginia Postrel tells the story of this extraordinary product in her Bloomberg piece: Nylon, the iPhone of 1939, Helped Liberate Europe. And Women.

This week marks the 80th anniversary of one of the most successful and consequential product introductions ever. On Oct. 24, 1939, nylon stockings went on sale to the public for the first time. The frenzied reception was comparable to the one that greeted the original iPhone, and so were the long-term consequences.

“Customers were lined three deep at the counters most of the day,” reported the New York Times, noting that many buyers were men. The sale was merely a trial: 4,000 unbranded pairs sold by DuPont to demonstrate its new fiber’s real-world wearability. By 1:00 p.m., the six Wilmington, Delaware, stores offering them were completely sold out.

The stockings cost $1.15 to $1.35 a pair ($21.09 to $24.76 in today’s dollars), depending on their sheerness, or about four hours of work at the minimum wage of 30 cents. When the national rollout took place the following May, about 800,000 pairs sold the first day.

Nylon’s inventor was a brilliant, troubled organic chemist named Wallace Carothers, who was hired by DuPont with the promise that he could research whatever he wanted to. He decided to investigate the nature of polymers, which many chemists believed were too large to be single molecules…

Click here for the complete Bloomberg article. 


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About the Contributor

Ben duPont

Ben duPont

Ben duPont founded the company yet2.com and is a co-founder of Zip Code Wilmington and OpenBracket Delaware. He is also a general partner at Chartline Capital Partners. He is also the new co-owner of the DuPont Country Club.

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