Ellen Church and National Nylon Stockings Day

Among aviation pioneers, the name of Ellen Church is not exactly up there with the Wright Brothers or Louis Bleriot, Jimmy Doolittle or John Glenn, but she was pretty important in her own quiet way as the first “stewardess”. But the Ides of May (every month has ides, defined as the middle of the Roman calendar month, not just March that Shakespeare and Caesar made famous) is also known for the beginning of the Seven Years’/French and Indian War in 1756, the 1864 battle of New Market in the American Civil War, the birth of Madeline Albright in Prague in 1937, the beginning of the Women’t Army Corps in 1942, and shooting of George Wallace in Laurel, Maryland in 1972. But today, stewardesses and nylons.

In September 1904 Ellen Church was born in Cresco, Iowa, and had an early fascination with airplanes and flying. She studied nursing at the University of Minnesota and took off for San Francisco, where she took flying lessons and managed to get a job at Boeing Air Transport (BAT), the forerunner of United Air Lines.  Though they would not hire her as a pilot, Church had the idea that nurses acting as flight attendants on board (the term stewardess wouldn’t come into use until the late 1930’s) would be good for publicity, making flights seem safer.  Thought there had been stewards on airships since 1910, there were no women before Church first took to the air on a 20-hour flight from San Francisco to Chicago on 15 May 1930–with thirteen stops and fourteen passengers.

After Church’s first flight, BAT hired more “sky girls”–registered nurses, younger than 25, single, weighed less than 115 pounds and were less than 5’4″. The physical requirements saved weight, and allowed the young women to stand up while serving drinks and snacks in the small passenger cabins of the time. In addition to their cabin duties, they also had to help fuel the airplanes and move them in and out of the hanger.  For this they were paid the then-princely sum of $125 a month–nearly twice what most nurses made, and almost as much as the average civil pilot.  While she liked the work, a car accident  ended her career with BAT after a year and a half.  She went back to nursing, and in 1942 she joined the Army Nurse Corps and rose to the rank of captain.  Church was responsible for training evacuation nurses in preparation for the Normandy invasion in 1944. Ellen Church was active to the end of her life, when she was killed in a horse-riding accident in 1965.

Now, as you ladies who read this blog at all regularly (bless you, you poor dears) know,  I have very little experience with wearing nylon stockings myself (though I have done so for a few hours at a time as a preventative against man-of-war stings), so at least some of my remarks about National Nylon Stockings Day (and no one knows why its 15 May) will seem insensitive or sexist or something.  So, as always…get over it.

The DuPont Chemical Company first made their miracle of chemistry dubbed “nylon” in 1935: a woven material made of threads manufactured in chemical factories and thus, theoretically infinite.  The product’s first practical commercial product had been nylon toothbrushes first marketed in 1938.  In 1939, legend has it, that a young woman who worked for at the DuPont Experimental Station in Delaware complained that her silk stockings didn’t fit right.  Seeking a wider market, the company reasoned that weaving nylon threads into a fabric pulled over a mold in the desired (by the makers) shape and color (early formulas could be made in nearly any color by adding aniline dyes) of a woman’s legs would be technically feasible. The rest, as they say, is history…maybe.  Still, legends often have roots in facts, so it sounds plausible.

At the World’s Fair in 1939, DuPont showed their mass-produced ladies nylon stockings to rave reviews, and sales of the more easily-obtainable stockings (more available than silk since Japan’s war with China started in 1937) skyrocketed right up until 1942, when manufacture of stockings was suspended for the duration of the war.  Manufacture resumed in 1945 and has continued unabated, with demand far outstripping supply in the 1940’s to the point of riots in late 1945 and early 1946.

But there was (and is) a catch: nylons weren’t and aren’t perfect.  They are more flexible than the cotton and silk they replaced, but not infinitely: until the 1980’s and the introduction of longer-chain “memory” polymer yarns, they squeezed the leg into the shape of the maker’s dies whether the wearer’s flesh was that shape or not.  This created not just discomfort but, in some cases, pain.  Modern hose are more forgiving of thicker thighs or longer calves but are still very form fitting, so the slightest hair stubble will catch in their mesh.  And shaving legs is not like shaving faces, you guys: leg skin never really toughens up like cheeks and chins…so I’m told. Further, the seams were unsightly (though they were eliminated by continuous weaving in 1965) and hard to keep straight.

Worldwide sales of nylon stockings has always been high and is still mind-boggling.  Since their introduction sales of nylon hosiery has been consistently in the mid-hundreds of millions of units–at first because of their fragility, and then because of population explosions, the introduction of nylons for younger girls, and increasing social acceptability of…well, more exposure of the leg. Since 1958 and the development of panty hose the sale of accompanying garters  and belts has declined: since 1980 panty hose demand has exceeded single hose demand.

The silky wonders of science are still popular, despite the discomfort to the wearers. Demographically, regular nylon wearers have been women under fifty since wearing trousers became fashionably acceptable for ladies in the 1960’s.  I’m told by reliable authorities (better than you, wiseguy) that this has been first because of the shaving requirement, second the expense (better-quality units can run $25 and more, and only last three months of weekly wear), and third because of the general discomfort that accompanies having one’s flesh squeezed into someone else’s idea of what their legs should look like because sizing–even three quarters of a century–hasn’t been perfected.

Ellen Church almost certainly wore nylons: hard to imagine such a trailblazer not wearing them at least once.  One wonders if she stood in one of those outrageously long lines for them. My late mother once said she stood in line for half a day outside Hudson’s in Detroit for a pair in about 1946: she would have been 23 or so, a bride of three years.  Then again, that may be more legend than fact, too.  Still, a bit of personal history for context.

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