The nylon riots – 1945 to 1946
One of the enduring images of wartime England was how GIs armed with plentiful supplies of chocolate, cigarettes and nylon stockings were able to win the hearts and favours of the local women to the disgust and frustration of the local men. Nylon stockings were a relatively new innovation – indeed, it was only in 1935 that a chemist of the DuPont Corporation, Walter Carothers, developed what was to become nylon. When introduced in the States nylon stockings became an overnight sensation with four million pairs sold within two days of the product’s launch.
The availability of nylon stockings, the must-have accessory for the fashionable woman, came to an abrupt halt when the States entered the Second World War and DuPont switched production of nylon from stockings to parachutes and other times of military gear. Most women grinned and bore the shortage, showing resourcefulness by painting lines on the backs of their legs to give the impression that they were wearing nylons. A black market sprang up with pairs of nylon stockings changing hands for upwards of $20 and, inevitably, such a valuable commodity became a target for crime. One Louisiana family were robbed of 18 pairs.
George Marion Jnr and Fats Waller’s song, When the Nylons Bloom Again, captured the longing of the women folk for peace to return and nylons to be in plentiful supply. “I’ll be happy when the nylons bloom again/ Cotton is monotonous to men/ only way to keep affection fresh/ get some mesh for your flesh”. Eight days after Japan’s surrender in August 1945, DuPont announced that it would recommence the production of stockings. Unfortunately, its P.R department went into overdrive – not the production department – claiming that it would be able to knock out 360 million pairs in a year. The actual amount produced fell well short of this aggressive target and this is where the problem started.
When supplies of the stockings reached the stores, there was an unprecedented demand for them. A queue stretching 2 kilometres of some 40,000 women formed outside a Pittsburgh store which had just 13,000 pairs to sell. In New York queues of some 30,000 women were reported. When supplies ran out, the disappointed women reacted furiously. A paper in Atlanta, Georgia ran the headline “Women Risk Life and Limb in Bitter Battle for Nylons” and there were countless reports up and down the States of instances of women battling with each other and pulling hair to get their hands on a pair of nylons. Shelves and displays went flying in the mayhem.
It was not until March 1946 that DuPont was able to ramp up production to a level, some 30 million pairs a month, that would satisfy demand and the riots were quelled. But the nylon riots sounded the death knell for DuPont’s cosy monopoly over nylon. Many thought that DuPont had delayed production to stoke up demand and maximise profits, a charge that the firm vigorously denied (natch). In response, DuPont rather patronisingly claimed that the problem was women with too much time on their hands and with nothing better to do than queue and hoard. In 1951 it was threatened with an anti-trust suit and seeing the writing on the wall, DuPont agreed to share the Nylon licence with the Chemstrand Corporation and then, eventually, with others.