Activity #4: The Stocking Story: You Be The Historian
This activity has three parts:
When Du Pont decided to develop nylon into a commercial fiber, the company specifically intended to use it to compete with silk in the women's 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 woman's 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 World's 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.
The history of nylon stockings has never been written. Your assignment is to be the historian and write it. The story you will tell describes both the introoduction of a new consumer product in the U.S. in 1938 and the impact of World War II on everyday life. Documents (mainly magazine articles) and oral histories will serve as your evidence.
Write an essay based on the attached documents. Included are some questions about the documents to get you started. Remember that every essay should have a thesis in addition to telling a story. You can't just answer the questions included here; you need to choose a point you want to make and provide evidence to support your contention.
What To Do
Not all of the articles listed here are linked. Unlinked articles may be obtained at a library.
"Textiles: No. 2,130,948," Time, October 3, 1938, p 47-8.
Du Pont Co. Press Release. October 28, 1938.
"Nylon Sellout, Newsweek, May 27, 1940, pp 65-66.
"Nylon," Life, June 10, 1940, pp 60-1.
"Stocking Panic," Business Week, August 9, 1941, p24.
"Hosiery Woes," Business Week, February 7, 1942, pp 40-3.
"A Woman Complains," Business Week, October 3, 1942, p87.
"Nylon After the War," Science News Letter, January 9, 1943, p19.
"Nylon in Tires," Scientific American August 1943, p 78.
Beatrice Oppenheim, "Post War Jobs For Nylon," New York Times Magazine, November 5, 1944, p 37.
Edith Efron, "Legs are Bare Because They Can't Be Sheer," New York Times Magazine, June 24,1945, p 17.
"Bootleg Nylons," Readers Digest, February 1945, pp 66-8.
What To Do
Interview a woman who remembers when nylon stockings were first available on the market or who bought stockings during World War II. You may want to first read the documents included in this exercise. Ask your subject the following questions and any others you think up.
During your interview, write down the answers so you can report on them to the class.
Oral History Questions
After the interview, think about the following questions.
* What kind of information have you learned?
* How did your informant feel about your questions? Did she take the subject seriously? Why or why not?
* What other information would you need in order to tell "The Stocking Story" and where could you get it?
Class Discussion: Comparing Documents and Oral Histories as Historical Evidence
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Last Revision: 6/5/98