Brown Bag Lecture: Defining Artifice: Arthur D. Little, Rayon, and the Origins of a Synthetic Textiles Industry

Lunchtime Lectures
Monday, April 16, 2018
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a Brown Bag Lecture by Spring Greeney, Visiting Dissertation Fellow at the Science History Institute.

Today more than half of the clothing sold in the United States is made from petroleum or petrochemical products. How did chemical derivatives come to replace the cotton, wool, silk, and flax fibers at the heart of the 19th-century American textile industry? In this talk I trace the origins of the first synthetic textile, rayon. From its start in 1880s French laboratories to its popularization in the 1920s United States, I argue that it was rayon’s placelessness—its distinction from competitors that were grown in only one region, such as Shetland wool, Tibetan cashmere, and Indian silk—that American producers learned to enlist as a positive attribute rather than a defect of the product. By the 1940s commercial chemists had built on this inside, successfully creating “synthetic” as a broader consumer category that included nylon and polyester when appealing to customers or federal regulators. In doing so they set in motion debates over the desirability and downstream effects of inorganic textiles that are still with us today. 

About the Speaker

Spring Greeney is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a Visiting Dissertation Fellow at the Science History Institute. As an environmental historian of primarily the 20th-century United States, her research explores how commercial chemistry remade the types of nature that American consumers saw, smelled, and interacted with in the ostensibly domesticated household. She is also a competitive long-distance runner.

About the Series

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.