Teacher's Essay

Nylon: Miracle or Marketing? Introduction

Wallace Hume Carothers in his Du Pont lab.
Courtesy of Pictorial Collections, Hagley Museum and Library,
Wilmington, DE.

When Du Pont chemists first produced a laboratory-synthesized fiber, nylon, it seemed like a miracle. The press hailed the way scientists magically transformed common materials such as "coal, air, and water" into fibers with qualities superior to those found in nature. Yet the production of nylon resulted from a calculated effort on the part of large corporations to control and accelerate the invention process. On the other hand, the first synthetic fibers made into consumer products did transform some material aspects of daily life in the U.S. While the invention and development of synthetic fibers was not miraculous, their appearance represented a revolution for both producers and consumers of textile products. This unit illustrates the issues that arose when the first "miracle fibers" came on the scene in America, the social response, and the economic impact both domestically and industrially. The basic chemical nature of synthetic fibers and their production is also addressed. Most importantly perhaps, we will examine the effect of technology on daily life as the new fibers are used by everyone.

Not Such A Miracle

Contemporary Du Pont Logo

Du Pont's representation of nylon as made from "such common raw materials as coal, air, and water," in its October 1938 press release (included) belied the fiber's technical origins. The people who made nylon and other new fibers were not magicians working alone in garages or attics, but university-trained scientists and engineers organized into groups for the purpose of experimenting with, and creating, new substances. Large chemical companies, whose profits depended on developing new commercial products, established research and development labs in order to direct and accelerate the invention process. Companies sought to control scientific knowledge and insisted on the ownership of the patents of their employees' discoveries.

The story of textiles in the 20th century is the story of chemistry. Changes in the chemical industry affected the textile industry and the two became intertwined. Chemistry had always played an important role in textile finishing but, starting around 1900, it became possible to apply knowledge about molecules to producing fibers themselves.

By the early 20th century there was a lot to know about chemistry and chemical engineering. No one person controlled the knowledge or the resources to pull a fiber out of a test tube and make it into a piece of fabric. Only large corporations, owned by many stockholders, could bring together the specialized knowledge and equipment required to solve the complex engineering problems of transforming raw materials into a finished product. Germany had been the center of the chemical industry and its connection with the textile industry since the development of synthetic dyes in the 19th century. Around 1900, chemists in Europe began applying their knowledge of textiles to the development of new fibers. Chemists first made fibers out of natural materials such as cotton linters and wood. Because these fibers were made of cellulose-based materials, they are called cellulosics. Rayon was the first such manufactured fiber. In the beginning, rayon was not so resilient as wool and cotton; but by the 1930s the finish had been perfected and rayon became known as artificial silk. With the end of World War I and the defeat of Germany, the U.S. took over all of the German patents and used them to promote the American chemical industry. One of America's leading chemical firms, Du Pont, became the first to commercially produce a synthetic fiber.

Du Pont technicians inspect a reactor used to synthesize chemicals ca. 1930s.
Courtesy of Pictorial Collections, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE.

Nylon resulted from about ten years of concentrated research at Du Pont's Experimental Station. Originally, the researchers had sought to improve natural materials, particularly those used to make hosiery. They targeted hosiery because it was an item consumers bought often and thus presented Du Pont with the opportunity for large profits. What they discovered was a synthetic fiber with wholly new properties. Through the mid-1950s, the story of nylon takes place within Du Pont.

Once they had invented the fibers, companies often had to "invent" uses for them as well. The value of a synthetic fiber to consumers in the marketplace did not follow directly or immediately from the "discovery" of various polymers. Instead, public acceptance and value resulted from intensive, deliberate efforts on the part of many people. Large chemical corporations in the U.S. established marketing divisions in order to ensure that consumers would buy their products. From the start, advertising and marketing were built into synthetic fibers. Although the press seized upon nylon so enthusiastically that Du Pont did not have to promote it at first, soon aggressive advertising campaigns to a national audience became part of doing business. Through trademarks and brand names such as "Dacron" polyester or "Orlon" acrylic, chemical companies such as Du Pont established consumer loyalty to their products. Such loyalty has been as critical to success and failure as the engineering of the fiber properties. Creating and perpetuating consumer demand for synthetic fibers was part of the new technological system.

Aircraft tire manufactured using nylon, 1943.
Courtesy of Scientific American.

During World War II, nylon became an important strategic material. With Japanese silk supplies cut off, the U.S. government redirected nylon's use away from consumer and civilian products toward such military needs as parachutes and tents. The government directed Du Pont to focus its research and development efforts on war objectives. At home, this meant that both nylon and silk stockings were in short supply during the war. Popular lore has it that women drew lines on their legs to imitate the seams of "full-fashioned" hosiery. For soldiers at war around the world, adaptations and improvements on nylon meant stronger parachute shroud lines, tire cord for B-1 bomber planes, and nylon shoe stitching resistant to rotting in the moist jungles of the Pacific. The development of numerous military uses -- both small and large -- for nylon during World War II reinforced its reputation as a "miracle fiber" that Du Pont had begun to develop before the war started.

After World War II, Du Pont used its research and development capabilities to develop additional fibers with more uses, but ran into several problems. Du Pont found it more difficult to develop polyester and acrylic for commercial use and struggled to secure markets for these fibers that were as ideal as that of nylon for hosiery.

Adaptation in the Textile Industry

The introduction of synthetic fibers changed the textile industry. Because their properties differed from natural fibers, introducing synthetics into the existing system of textile processing created a disequilibrium. Beginning in the 1950s, textile producers adjusted through a series of minor innovations involving fabric, yarn, and machinery. These interrelated technical changes were just as important, if not as glamorous, as the invention of the new fibers. The transition was not easy or automatic.

Synthetic fibers produced in a lab still needed to be processed to make commercial goods. Textile mills needed to adapt spinning, weaving, and finishing to the new materials. The producers of the new fibers put pressure on textile manufacturers to adapt their existing fabric-making systems to the characteristics of the new fibers. Chemical companies, in order to protect and develop the market for their product, worked with everyone in the chain of production to eliminate any problems posed by the new fibers. For example, technical sales representatives, employed by the chemical companies, visited textile manufacturers to help with the transition.

Yet many manufacturers (especially those involved in cotton production) and workers (who faced speed-ups because synthetic fibers broke less frequently than natural ones) resisted the introduction of synthetics. Some aspects of the textile industry did not change. Textile mills stayed relatively small and they invested little in research and development (preferring to leave that to the larger chemical companies). Even today, the textile industry remains fragmented, with separate companies controlling the steps of fiber production, yarn spinning, weaving, garment making, wholesaling, and retailing. So continuities with earlier textile production remained. The modes of processing -- spinning, weaving or knitting, and finishing -- are still basically the same. The primary function of textile mills is still the production of cloth.

A Revolution in Consumption

The availability of synthetic fibers profoundly influenced the way Americans clothed themselves, furnished their homes, and used textiles industrially. On one level, the new fibers contributed to an overall increase in the quantity of textile products available. They also brought new qualities to, and changed expectations in, the performance of apparel, home furnishings, and industrial goods.

Advertisement for Du Pont carpets,
1962. Courtesy of Pictorial Collections, Hagley
Museum and Library,Wilmington, DE.

From the consumer's point of view, many of these textiles were easier to care for. They could be washed and dried at home, and they required little ironing. For women, who by World War II most often did the family wash at home, the care of an increasing number of textile goods was made easier and possible. In the beginning, synthetics represented a trade off - they were easier to iron and longer lasting, but harder to keep clean and uncomfortable for some uses (underwear and shirts, for example). Wrinkle resistant and durable, synthetic fibers became part of a culture in which crisp apparel and neat home furnishings provided proof of respectability. Although there was a huge fanfare made about nylon hosiery, many more pounds of the new fiber were used in other products, such as carpets.

But the advantages of the new fibers also required changes in the "system" by which fabrics were consumed. The appearance of several new fibers in a relatively short period of time confused consumers. They often did not know what they were buying, could not remember the fabric content of a piece of clothing, or how to care for it since before 1960 clothing carried no labels listing fabric care. The U.S. government, long a player in both the textile and chemical industries, stepped in with legislation regulating labeling practices to eliminate consumer confusion and thus promote sales of synthetic fibers.

New products played an important role in creating a consumer culture in the years after World War II. Du Pont introduced these "high-tech" fibers and fabrics at a time of optimism and belief in material wealth, into a social context which equated abundance with democracy. Along with electrical appliances, automobiles, and a suburban home, many people believed they fulfilled the promise of the "good life" when they purchased "miracle fibers." By the 1960s, synthetics had become commonplace, and by the end of the decade, the industry faced the problem of overproduction.

Increased consumption of synthetic fibers in the 1950s and 1960s constituted part of an overall growing U.S. dependency on oil and petrochemicals. Although the amount of oil consumed in the production of synthetic fibers is but a small fraction of that consumed by automobiles, the industry was built on an assumption that oil would be cheaply and infinitely available. The oil embargo of 1973 called attention most dramatically to U.S.'s heavy reliance on oil. Fiber prices increased and many fiber producers, caught by surprise, had trouble selling their products. Out of desperation, many companies made synthetic fiber products that were inferior to those made earlier. The leisure suit was the most obvious case in point. Blends with natural fibers had originally been the preferred use of synthetic fibers, but in the 1970s more and more 100% synthetic fiber products appeared on the market.

High prices and shoddy goods tell only part of the story of the rejection of synthetic fibers. By the late 1960s, a younger generation of Americans began a cultural reaction against synthetic fibers. They associated synthetics with multinational corporations and a growing dominance of the U.S. in geopolitics and sought to return to a simpler way of life represented by natural fibers. For the return of synthetics, in the form of Lycra, see Unit 8, "Fashion and Style."

Conclusion

Synthetic fibers are now pervasive in American life. There are more than a dozen generic types produced today. Increased knowledge of their properties and capabilities has resulted in a vast array of functions -- some old, some new -- throughout the broad range of textile products: from running shoes, bicycle shorts, and Polar System, to innumerable industrial products. In a relatively short period of time, concentrated research and development by large corporations transformed consumer and industrial goods by the introduction of fibers derived from synthetic polymers. Requirements for fibers and fabrics have become more stringent and more elaborate in the last 50 years. Increased consumer expectations have accompanied the expansion of technical possibilities. Corporations have engineered fibers to last almost forever, despite the fact that someday -- perhaps tomorrow -- they will no longer be stylish.

The synthetic fibers "revolution" took place over several decades and involved many actors, not only scientists, engineers, and technicians, but also consumers. The overall change was the sum of individual decisions made alone or within organizations. Decisions about research, about production, and about consumption, involved technical choices and value judgments. The revolution resulted from incremental change, not an instantaneous miracle. It was based on the coordinated interaction of the fiber, textile, and textile products industries and involved a complex series of engineering problems that touched everyone's life.


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 Center:lemcen@si.edu

Last Revision: 6/5/98