Student Activity Packet

Activity #4: The Stocking Story: You Be The Historian


This activity has three parts:

  1. An essay based on documents.
  2. An oral history and subsequent report to the class.
  3. A comparison of the two forms of historical evidence in a class discussion.
You will read an introductory essay and examine a set of documents to write an account of the introduction of nylon stockings and the effect of World War II on this new fiber. Then, either in addition to the document activity or instead of it (your teacher will let you know), you will conduct an oral history with a woman who tried to buy stockings during World War II.

Student Essay

The Stocking Story: You Be The Historian

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.

What To Do

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.

Document questions:

  1. What was new about nylon? Why was it better? Why were women willing to pay more for nylon stockings than for silk ones?

  2. What happened to silk and nylon during World War II? Who used these fibers and for what purposes?

  3. How did women react to the stocking shortage?

  4. How and why did ordinary people think they contributed to the war effort? Why would women buy stockings on the black market? Was it unpatriotic to buy on the black market?

  5. What is the role of consumers in the stocking story?

  6. What effect did the war have on nylon (consider nylon the fiber, not just nylon the hosiery)? Why would magazines spend a lot of time describing what products would be available after the war?

  7. Is studying the story of stockings really studying history? Why were stockings important? Is studying stockings as important as studying Supreme Court cases? What kinds of important issues does the study of stockings raise?

  8. What is the thesis of your essay? Is it in the first paragraph? What evidence do you use to support your thesis?

What To Do

Documents List

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.

Oral History

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

  1. Do you remember your first pair of stockings?

  2. Where did you buy them? Were they easy to get? Were they expensive? How did their cost compare to other expenses?

  3. Did you like nylon or silk stockings better? Why?

  4. Were your stockings hard to take care of?

  5. What kind of stockings did you wear during World War II?

  6. If you couldn't get stockings, what did you do?

  7. How did you feel about the wartime stocking shortage?

  8. What did you do to help the war effort?

  9. Did you ever buy anything on the black market?

  10. Were you eager to buy nylon stockings again after the war?

What To Do

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


  1. What kind of information have you learned from the documents?

  2. What kind of information have you learned from the oral histories?

  3. How did the documents treat the subject of stockings and/or nylon? Did they take the subject seriously? Why or why not?

  4. How did the interviewees treat the subject of stockings? Did they take the subject seriously? Why or why not?

  5. What other information would you need in order to tell "The Stocking Story" and where could you get it?

  6. What kinds of history could you tell only by consulting documents? What stories might be absent from documents?

  7. What are the drawbacks of oral history? documentary evidence?

  8. What are the advantages of oral history? documentary evidence?

  9. Why would social historians be more likely to use oral histories than political historians?

Copyright © 1998 The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.

Comments and questions to the Lemelson

Last Revision: 6/5/98