16 December 2014

1942 - American soldiers, Australian women, nylon stockings

My mother’s final year of high school was 1942, the very year American soldiers and sailors first arrived in Australia. Mum's sole knowledge of American men until that point came from seeing Spencer Tracy and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr at the local picture theatre.

My mother got to meet real live American men in two strange ways. Firstly her high school in Melbourne gave all its football fields over to the American Army, to use as a training camp. The school built a brick fence between the students and the soldiers, but athletic girls managed to climb the fence to check out the talent on the other side.

Secondly my grandmother used to go down to the docks at Port Mel­bourne, before every major Jewish holiday. My grandmother must have been a courageous and determined soul. She asked the ships’ captains to select a small group of their Jewish sailors for the holiday.. and no captain ever refused her. Her goal was to give young sailors a holiday meal, surrounded by a warm loving family, even though they were 10,000 ks from home. Every American sailor or soldier brought a luxury gift that my family had not afforded before – orchids on a stick for my grandmother and nylon stockings for my mother and her two teenage sisters.

Perhaps Australian men were less educated in dating etiquette; the best gift they brought to warm the heart of a date was a chocolate frog for 3d. More likely still, Australian men brought no present at all! Or perhaps the Australian army and navy had paid hopelessly low salaries to its men since August 1939, whereas the Americans paid their men halfway decent military salaries since January 1942.

At least regarding nylons, Smithsonian.com has the answer! Hemlines were rising throughout the 1930s, and stockings, made back then from silk or rayon, had become an essential component to a woman’s ward­robe. The delicacy of the 1930s stockings did not hurt the bottom line; women purchased an average of eight pairs of stockings per year during that decade.

Nylon stockings did not make their debut in the USA until Oct 1939. It happened in Wilmington Delaware because that was the home of Wallace Hume Carothers and the company he worked for, DuPont. Carothers was the chemist who researched in the field of Polymers, producing a fibre that was to replace silk in many clothing garments. [What a shame that Carot­h­ers, nylon’s creator, did not get to see the mania around his invent­ion; he committed suicide in 1936 after battling depression for years].

In fact the first test sale to DuPont employees’ wives took place at the company’s experimental station. Before the 4,000 pairs of stockings sold out, DuPont had had women modelling nylon hosiery at the 1939 New York World’s Fair; they were touting nylon as a synthetic fabric light as air. Intelligent American men soon understood how to win a woman’s heart!

From the moment DuPont realised what kind of stretchy, durable, wash­able, dryable revolution it had synthesised, the company focused on women’s hosiery, a huge potential market. DuPont’s initial sales success in Wilmington was the start of the nylon stocking craze! In May 1940, four million pairs of brown nylons landed on department store shelves across the USA at $1.15 per pair and sold out immediately. Standard silk stockings, which did not stretch, were tough to clean and ripped easily, were quickly supplanted. By 1941, sales in the USA reached 64 million pairs.

Eventually WW2 arrived in the USA. As quickly as nylon stockings had found their way into department stores and boutiques, providing women with inexpensive, longer-lasting hosiery options... the stockings disappeared :( The material was severely rationed and channelled into war efforts. Nylon was permitted only in the manufacturing of parachutes, ropes, air­craft fuel tanks, shoe laces, mosquito netting and hammocks, aiding in the USA’s national defence.

American women had to be inventive to meet their leg-beautifying needs or turn to the black market. However nylon stockings were app­arently present in many GI’s kitbags to impress the glamour-starved women in the overseas countries American soldiers trained in. Did my 18 year old mother and her friends know that? Were Australian women as excited about nylons as American women? It has been suggested (History Today, October 2014) that some of the babies born in Britain and Australia to American soldiers in 1943-5 could be directly traced back to the gift of nylons.

When the war was over and rations were eased, nylon stockings ret­ur­n­ed to American shops and sold quickly. In late 1945 Nylon Riots started up around the USA; tens of thousands of women queued up to try to buy a pair.


Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew said...

Typo, take 2.

The anecdote about your mother reminds me of my teen age girlfriend who the nuns told to not talk to the boys through the cyclone wire fence, dividing the boys and girls. Apparently they would become pregnant from such an action. Hmm, difficult but possible.

A bit out of left field Hels, but a terrific post. Where would we be without nylon.

Sydneysider said...

15,000 Australian women married American soldiers and left Australia and their families. My dad didn't like the Yanks being here. Over paid, over sexed, over here.

Hels said...


I was never sure how much to believe of mum's stories from WW2, but I have since heard many of the details repeated by other women of the same age. The Australian women all seemed to have been mesmerised by the Americans' presents and the dancing!

Hels said...


I like Deborah Burrow's comments. The Diggers were a poor bet when it came to showing a girl a good time, because the Yanks did earn a lot more money. American soldiers in the lower ranks earned twice the amount of their Australian counterparts - a US private earned the same as an Australian captain. In the higher ranks the disparity was even more pronounced. These differences in pay scales AND their stylish uniforms (with zippered flies!).

My own dad told me that the Australian men looked daggy, in comparison. His view was that even the lowest ranks in the American army dressed like officers.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It's funny how a feminine fashion accessory like nylon stocking became one of the basic symbols of World War II, at once signifying privations at home for the war effort, the ultimate black market item, and the U.S. soldier's trading stock (along with cigarettes and chocolate).

Perhaps the nylon frenzy denoted more than just a shortage--the underlying wish was for the previous simpler peacetime conditions, remembering when the question "Are my seams straight?" was a serious consideration.

PS: I'm sure that feminists would factor in a desire to return women to their pre-war roles of domesticity and femininity.

Dina said...

Interesting about the history of nylons. But the opening paragraphs about your mother and grandmother are the most heart-warming!

I didn't even know that American soldiers trained in Australia.

In my late mother's yellowing scrapbook that she kept as my American father went off to war, pasted on one page I see brown wrapping mailing paper with Mom's Chicago address. She wrote on the page "Five pairs of silk stockings from Brazil! (What a thoughtful husband!)"
That was on May 14, 1944. The next page has a telegram informing that her bomber pilot husband is missing in action, his B-24 shot down while bombing the oil fields of Ploesti.
(Later he was found in a prisoner of war camp in Bucharest; the air crews were liberated several months later.)

Hels said...


symbols are normally just symbols, not really something substantial. But these symbols (nylons, dancing, chocolates, orchids etc) lasted and lasted. My mum is 91 and still talks with affection about the American soldiers who showed the local girls how to have a fun time.

Yes rationing regulations for food and clothing were mandated across Australia in May 1942. But I agree with you, it was way more than just a shortage.

Hels said...


It is usually estimated that one million American servicemen trained in Australia before going to battle or had R & R here between Jan 1942 and the end of the war in 1945. Most did not stay here for long, but the impact was enormous.

Your own mother showed how terrible it was to have husbands, brothers and old school friends thousands of ks away. I cannot even start to imagine their anxiety.

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Hels said...


welcome aboard. Do you have an interest in Australian history in WW2?