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How Nylon Reshaped Seaford’s Economy

Exterior of Seaford Nylon Plant

The breakthrough in materials science known as nylon fueled both economic revival and wartime innovation as America sought to emerge from the depths of the Great Depression.  

DuPont chemist Wallace Hume Carothers invented nylon in 1937, and the synthetic fiber soon made its public debut at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Carothers himself would not live to see the extensive societal impact of his invention, tragically taking his own life in 1937. His groundbreaking work, though, transformed the town of Seaford overnight, thanks to DuPont Company’s nylon production plant.  

Seaford’s Economic Struggles Before Nylon

Before DuPont’s arrival, the local economy languished. Residents scraped by on modest farm income streams. One such stream was crafting holly wreaths for holiday seasons. This labor earned them a paltry 3 to 6 cents per wreath. 

DuPont’s nylon venture injected newfound optimism into this economically beleaguered community. After considering 14 possible locations and weighing factors such as water supply, workforce, and transportation, the company chose 609 acres on Seaford’s Nanticoke River for its inaugural plant. The selection ignited spontaneous celebrations: fireworks lit the sky, marching bands filled the air with music, and grown men wept openly on the streets at the prospect of much-needed employment. 

Construction on the plant commenced in March 1939 and, astonishingly, was completed within 14 months. By December 15 of that year, approximately 850 workers, some hailing from distant cities like Pocomoke City and Cambridge, MD, spun the world’s first nylon yarn. The plant operated ceaselessly during its inaugural year, churning out enough fiber for an impressive 64 million pairs of nylon stockings. DuPont also recognized the need for housing and subsequently purchased 153 acres in Seaford to build homes for its expanding workforce. 

Nylon’s utility transcended hosiery. With the onset of World War II, the Seaford plant pivoted towards supporting the military effort. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government allocated all nylon production for critical wartime supplies—ranging from parachutes to airplane tire cord. DuPont plants in Seaford and Martinsville, VA, rose to the occasion, collectively manufacturing approximately 80 million pounds of nylon yarn and flakes for the war effort. Employment remained steady, including an influx of skilled women workers. By 1969, Seaford plant staff peaked at 3,400 workers, firmly establishing its reputation as the “Nylon Capital of the World.” 

The Ephemeral Nature of Economic Boom

Nylon’s dramatic effect on Seaford illuminates the positive intersection of material science with economic opportunity. Yet, the town’s story is also a cautionary one. While DuPont’s nylon production reigned as its most lucrative venture for over half a century, it’s crucial to remember the ephemeral nature of boom towns. DuPont eventually sold the Seaford plant in 2004, moving production to locales with cheaper labor.  

DuPont’s nylon plant is a vivid illustration of how the vision of a single chemist, fused with the foresight of a corporate industry leader, can dramatically reshape not just an economy, but also the very fabric of everyday life. 

Inspecting finished product (top). Sizing nylon on the line.
Inspecting finished product (top). Sizing nylon on the line.

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