The Nylon Riots and a Christmas Tradition

[Editor’s Note: For an unprecedented second time in a row, Andy is carrying the burden for today’s main blog while Ann is the guest MC for Andy’s Corner (which, by the way is full of ideas for special culinary holiday gifts).  Also, for reasons that will become obvious, if you have young children you may want to direct their attention elsewhere while you read this]. 


Nylon stockings’ debut at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York (source: GlamourDaze.com)

Each year around Christmas time I can’t help but think about nylon hose. I’m not referring to the garden hose variety, I’m talking about women’s nylon stockings.  Remember those?  It wasn’t that long ago when they were considered a fashion must.  Indeed, it wasn’t that long ago that they came into existence. It turns out that the history of nylon stockings, as short as it may be, is fascinating.  Before filling you in on why nylon stockings come to mind at Christmas time, let me tell you something about their colorful (and somewhat violent) history.

This is from a 2015 Smithsonian Magazine article entitled How Nylon Stockings Changed the World:

“Nylon stockings made their grand debut in a splashy display at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. By the time the stockings were released for sale to the public on May 15, 1940 demand was so high that women flocked to stores by the thousands. Four million pairs sold out in four days.

But the nylon stocking boom was short circuited by World War II when the sole manufacturer of nylon, Dupont, had to devote its production of nylon to the war effort. Nylon, which was dubbed “the fiber that won the war,” was used for parachutes, glider tow ropes, and numerous other military necessities.

Leg painting became a business when nylon stockings were not available during WWII (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

Suddenly, the only stockings available were those sold before the war or bought on the black market. Women took to wearing “leg make-up” and painting seams down the backs of their legs to give the appearance of wearing proper stockings.

Women would have to wait until the end of the war for nylons to return to the market. And it wasn’t long after the war that Dupont resumed production of nylon stockings and promised to meet the demand.

American Airline flight attendants try on nylons that were flown in by American Airlines for Holeproof Hosiery Co. and distributed to flight attendants, Dec. 10, 1945
Chicago Tribune

In August 1945, eight days after Japan’s surrender, DuPont announced that it would resume producing stockings and newspaper headlines cheered “Peace, It’s Here! Nylons on Sale!” DuPont’s announcement indicated that nylons would be available in September and the motto “Nylons by Christmas” was sung everywhere. (Wikipedia)

The first nylon sale in San Francisco following the war drew a massive 10,000 into Market Street. They had to close the sale early when one of the display windows caved in from the force of the crowds (source: GlamourDaze.com)

Unfortunately, Dupont was unable to produce the 360 million pairs per year that it promised, creating mad rushes when the stock hit the store racks. These incidences, which occurred in big cities across the country in 1945 and 1946, were called the “nylon riots.” There were at times mile-long lines of women “hoping to snag a single pair.”

In her book Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution, Susannah Handley writes about one of these “riots” when more than 40,000 Pittsburgh women lined up outside a hosiery store, determined to buy some of the store’s 13,000 pairs of nylon stockings. According to newspaper accounts, “a good old fashioned hair-pulling, face scratching fight broke out in the line.”

 The “riots” abated once Dupont got up to production levels to satisfy the booming market. In 1959 pantyhose came onto the fashion scene and quickly dominated the nylon hosiery market. But it didn’t take long before pantyhose also became passé. As the Smithsonion article puts it, “by the 1980s the glam (for pantyhose) was wearing off. By the 90s, women looking for comfort and freedom began to go au-natural, leaving their legs bare as often as not. In 2006, the New York Times referred to the hosiery industry as An Industry that Lost its Footing.”

Now let’s get to why Christmas conjures in me images of nylon stockings. As we all know, hanging stockings is one of our culture’s cherished traditions practiced at Christmas and immortalized (at least for a large chunk of us) in Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From Saint Nicholas:”

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

...He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;


Hanging Christmas stockings, 1954. Photo from the Smithsonian Magazine “The Legend of the Christmas Stocking” published December 14, 2012.

The above photo from the Smithsonian Magazine was taken in 1954 when I would have been 11 years old (and probably still clinging to the fading hope that there really might be a Santa Claus). However, two things about that picture do not apply to my childhood experience with this tradition. First, we had no fireplace and hence could not hang stockings by the proverbial chimney. Second, and more to my point in this blog, the stockings in that photo look nothing like what we hung.

While I was growing up our family “tradition” was to put up nylon stockings on Christmas eve, along with the obligatory cookies and milk for Santa. Much to the bemusement of Ann, I convinced her to continue that tradition when our own children were young (although by then we had to resort to cutting off nylon pantyhose legs because nylon stockings were no longer easily available). Unfortunately, I can find no photographs of our filled stockings.

My parents (or was it Santa?) always stuffed the nylon stockings with an orange, assorted nuts (in the shell), Christmas candies, and small wrapped gifts. Ann and I pretty much followed that pattern with our kids. You would be amazed at how much stuff can fit into a nylon stocking. As a kid I always felt a bit sorry for my friends who only had traditional (and, in my opinion, absurdly small) stockings to hang and at the same time I felt a little guilty for having such Christmas morning abundance.

To my knowledge, our family nylon tradition is unique. I tried to find pictures of filled Christmas nylons on the Internet and came up with none (other than those filled with women’s legs). I’m not sure if I should feel some sense of satisfaction that we created a truly creative tradition or a bit of regret that we were spoiling our children.

After our kids grew up Ann made these stockings for our “adult” Christmas stocking tradition. They’re prettier, but not nearly as much fun as nylons.

So, those of you with young kids and who happen to have an old pair of nylons (or pantyhose) in a drawer somewhere you might think about starting your own family nylon holiday tradition. The stockings may look a little sad and un-Christmasy on Christmas Eve when “hung by the chimney with care” but when your kids see them in the morning brimming with goodies and gifts, nothing can be more Christmassy (at least in my mind).

Happy Holidays, whether or not you celebrate Christmas and the stocking tradition.

15 Comments

  1. Marilyn Carlson says:

    I was quite fascinated when I saw an older cousin drawing on her leg with an eyebrow pencil. We were living in New York city while my dad was a sabatical leave from teaching and my fashionable visiting cousin was job hunting after the war.

    Like

    • theRaggedys says:

      Thanks for the eye-witness account. It’s interesting how each generation adopts fashions that become relics only to be rediscovered in later generations. I doubt that leg painting is on the way back, although tattooing may be its surrogate.

      Like

  2. Helen Weaver says:

    I remember us getting up early to see what Santa left us in our nylon sock and to see if he ate the cookies & drank the milk we left for him. It was aways gone. Thank’s for the memories little brother.

    Like

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