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Toward the end of the 1920s an important breakthrough for DuPont Corporation came as a result of fundamental rather than applied research. The head of research noted at the time: "We are including in the budget for 1927 an item of $20,000 to cover what may be called, for want of a better name, pure science or fundamental research work...the sort of work we refer to...has the object of establishing or discovering new scientific facts." In a short time the group that had been put together under this budget had developed an understanding of radical polymerization and established the basic principles for condensation polymerization and the structure of condensation polymers. This led to the invention and commercialization of nylon in 1938--the beginning of the modern materials revolution. (Prior to this, the group yielded neoprene synthetic rubber in 1933.)
Dr. Wallace Hume Carothers, the inventor of nylon, at DuPont. Dr. CarothersĄŻ work in polymerization set in motion the modern materials revolution that continues to this day in the development of products that replicate nature yet add specific characteristics such as fire resistance, insulation, and light weight plus strength. When Du Pont decided to develop nylon into a commercial fiber, the company specifically intended to use it to compete with silk in the womenĄŻs hosiery market. The choice was deliberate, strategic, and significant. Years of research devoted to targeting this particular market proved enormously successful.
"Nylons," as they were soon called, eventually replaced silk stockings. Neither resembled the "panty hose" many women wear today. Covering only about two-thirds of a womanĄŻs leg, from the feet to mid-thigh, stockings were fastened with garters and a belt. They were knitted on highly complex machines. Women could buy them in either "full-fashioned" form with seams at the back or "seamless." One-piece sheer "panty hose" were not developed until the 1960s.
Cultural adjustment to the hosiery made of the new fiber took time. Available to consumers nationwide by 1940, nylon stockings did not become a part of everyday life immediately or automatically. Many forces and events contributed to creating the social meaning of this new product the 1939 New York WorldĄŻs Fair, World War II, an enthusiastic press response, consumer tests and surveys, retail and marketing programs, and technical issues of manufacture and testing.
When America entered World War II, first silk and then nylon were commandeered by the federal government (specifically the War Production Board) to supply defense needs. Overnight, stockings made of any materials became hard to find. Nylon became important to the war effort because it was used, for example, in parachutes and tires. On the home front, the popular press presented nylon as a miracle of technology that Americans could again enjoy when the war ended.