In the first episode of “Mad Men,” on the AMC television network, the character Don Draper, an advertising executive, uttered memorable words that captured the hearts of many viewers: “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”
Those nylon stockings were invented by the U.S. chemical industry, and embodied the high-tech dreams of the postwar world that “Mad Men” visually expresses.
The chemical industry was one of the drivers of the postwar economy, led by companies such as Dow Chemical Co., DuPont Co., Monsanto Co., Rohm & Haas Co., and Union Carbide Corp. Following World War I, these firms invested in synthetic organic chemistry and produced remarkable innovations such as thermoplastics, man-made rubber and man-made fibers.
DuPont famously introduced nylon, the world’s first synthetic fiber, at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, as a substitute for Asian silk used to knit women’s stockings. During World War II, nylon was adapted to military applications such as parachutes and rope. When peace returned, DuPont expanded the market for synthetic fibers with polyester, acrylic and spandex, creating a family of fibers with a range of uses. They were wrinkle-resistant, washable and mothproof.
These miracle materials give vintage “Mad Men” fashions their edginess. Synthetic fibers created a whole new look for women. The voluptuous “natural” shape of Joan Harris is sculpted by foundation garments made of stretch nylon and spandex, and the eye-popping colors she wears come from synthetic dyes. Stretch fibers are used in the pantyhose worn by Peggy Olson and Megan Draper. The crisp, wrinkle-free suits that Draper wears are made by blending polyester and acrylics into traditional fine wool.
The sleekness of 1960s design -- think of the streamlined interiors of the Time-Life Building featured in the show -- is often associated with the modernism of the German Bauhaus, but it owes much to American ingenuity. The synthetic fibers in the carpeting, upholstery and plastics seen almost everywhere in the show -- in offices, houses, apartments, restaurants -- symbolize modernity. The clean, colorful lines were the Space Age equivalent of the wooden furniture, hand-woven carpets and fringed curtains of the Victorian era.
One of these new materials, acrylic plastic, was used during the war as a glass substitute in Allied and Axis aircraft, and during the postwar building boom it became the favorite material for backlit roadside and storefront signs. McDonald’s Golden Arches and the Shell gas-station logo were made from colorized acrylics, marketed by Rohm & Haas as Plexiglas and by DuPont as Lucite.
These plastics are ubiquitous in “Mad Men.” Draper’s office is illuminated with ceiling lights covered with flat, white Plexiglas filter panels, and his colleague Roger Sterling’s black-and-white space is furnished in laminates. Olson has a bright yellow plastic phone in her apartment; consumers who wanted something other than the standard black handset provided by AT&T in the 1960s could pay a little extra for a pastel phone in a palette created by a former DuPont color specialist.
Walls are painted in deep, solid hues using the new quick-drying paints that evolved out of acrylic technology. The palettes used were developed out of the paint-marketing programs conducted by DuPont and PPG in the 1940s. These programs applied the principles of color psychology to factories and offices with the aim of improving people’s moods and increasing worker productivity.
Over the five seasons of “Mad Men,” Draper and his co-workers at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce have been selling the American Dream. At the same time, the firm’s office and the wardrobes of its staff demonstrate how much of that dream is the result of mid-century innovation from the U.S. chemical industry.
The show’s creators seem aware of their aesthetic debt: In the next season, we may see Draper and his team pitching for the Dow Chemical account.
(Regina Lee Blaszczyk is a historian affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and the author or editor of seven books, including “American Consumer Society, 1865-2005: From Hearth to HDTV.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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