Nylon was first introduced around 1939 and was in extremely high demand in the US, with up to 4 million pairs of stockings bought in one day. The riots occurred between August 1945 and March 1946, when Du Pont shifted its manufacturing from wartime material to nylon stockings, at the same time launching a promotional campaign. In one of the worst disturbances, in Pittsburgh, 40,000 women queued up for 13,000 pairs of stockings, leading to fights breaking out. It took several months before Du Pont was able to ramp up production to meet demand, but until this was able to happen many women went without nylon stockings for months.
Wartime "stocking panic"
After America entered World War II on December 8, 1941, the War Production Board immediately announced that Du Pont’s nylon manufacturing would be used exclusively for war materials production purposes. Du Pont ceased production of nylon stockings and switched to parachutes, airplane cords and ropes. Thus, during the war, the only nylons a woman could hope to purchase would have to have been produced pre-war.
Nylon became increasingly popular in the black market selling for up to $20 per pair. Women who could not get their hands on nylons resorted to lotions, creams, stick cakes and painting seam lines down their legs to give the illusion of Nylons. Because nylon was so widely sought-after, it also became the target of crime. In Louisiana, one household was robbed of 18 pairs of nylons. Similarly, robbery was ruled out as the motive of a murder in Chicago because the nylons were untouched.
Women everywhere yearned for the end of war and a time when nylons would be commonly available again. George Marion, Jr. and Fats Waller's song, "When the Nylons Bloom Again", captured the wistful sentiments of these American women:
Gone are the days when I’d answer the bell
I’ll be happy when the nylons bloom again
When the frozen hosen can appear
Working women of the USA and Britain
Keep on smiling to the nylons bloom again
—George Marion, Jr. and Fats Waller, When the Nylons Bloom Again
End of the war, beginning of riots
In August 1945, just 8 days after Japan’s surrender, Du Pont announced that it would move back to producing stockings and newspaper headlines cheered “Peace, It’s Here! Nylons on Sale!” Du Pont’s announcement indicated that nylons would be available in September and the motto “Nylons by Christmas” was sung everywhere. Du Pont originally forecasted that it would be able to produce 360 million pairs per year but this estimate turned out to be over-aggressive. The resulting production delays led to shortage and as a result, riots broke out.
The first riot occurred in September when a small post-war shipment of stockings went on limited sale around the country. Stores were flooded with mobs of women, clamoring to get their hands on a pair of nylons. The riots then grew in severity. In November, 30,000 women reportedly lined up in New York; 40,000 women in Pittsburgh queued up for a mere 13,000 pairs. A headline in Augusta, Georgia read “Women Risk Life and Limb in Bitter Battle for Nylons” and went on to detail how crowds clamored into the store, knocking down shelves and displays along the way.
News of the riots was all over the papers and magazines. It was declared that no other commodity had ever received as much free advertising in the history of the newspaper industry. The press reported outrageous instances of hair-pulling, hysterical women fighting tooth and nail for a pair of the prized stockings. The shortage persisted into 1946 but by March, Du Pont was finally able to ramp up production and began churning out 30 million pairs of stockings a month. Widespread availability of the stockings ended the period of ‘Nylon Riots’.
During the shortage, many people began to suspect that Du Pont was deliberately delaying production. Du Pont’s factories were actually operating at full capacity but nonetheless, public discontent remained high. Reporters suggested the company was being greedy and unpatriotic for maintaining exclusive patent and production rights to a substance in such popular demand. In 1945, an ad appeared in Knit Goods Weekly that called on readers and other retailers to write to their congressmen in protest.
In light of the public scandal, Du Pont tried to shift the blame to selfish housewives who had nothing better to do than stand in line and hoard stock. The public remained unconvinced. In 1951, after the riots had long subsided, Du Pont was finally threatened with an antitrust suit. In response, they agreed to share Nylon licensing with the Chemstrand Corporation. They soon allowed other licenses as well.
- "How Nylon Changed the World : 50 Years Ago Today, It Reshaped the Way We Live--and Think". LA Times. October 27, 1988. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
- Handley, Susannah (1999). Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-0756771720.
- "Stocking Series, Part 1: Wartime Rationing and Nylon Riots". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
- Meikle, Jeffrey L. (1995). “American Plastic: A Cultural History”. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
- Peterson, Amy T. ed., Valerie Hewitt, Heather Vaughan, Ann T. Kellogg, and Lynn W. Payne (2008). “The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through American History: 1900 to the Present”. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
- Handley, Susannah (2000). "Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution". Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Hounshell, David A. and Smith, John Kenly, JR (1988). Science and Corporate Strategy: Du Pont R and D, 1902–1980. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Ndiaye, Pap A. (trans. 2007). Nylon and Bombs: DuPont and the March of Modern America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Chandler, Alfred D. (1969). Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise.
- "Wartime Rationing and Nylon Riots" Smithsonian Magazine