Nylon pirates: the postwar craze for cut-price stockings

In the late 1940s, soaring demand for US nylons helped turn Britain into a smuggler’s paradise. Mark Roodhouse describes shop-floor riots, theft on the high seas and stockings’ brief heyday at the heart of mafia crime rings

A 1954 illustration of a woman wearing nylons. Lightweight, easy to conceal and fiercely sought after, stockings were a favourite with smugglers. (Photo by Bridgeman)

This article was first published in the June 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Early on the morning of Monday 3 April 1950, a Liverpool Customs rummage crew waited to board the Cunard liner Franconia once it docked. Equipped with mirrors, torches and probing rods, they spent five days searching the liner, which had sailed from New York. Furniture, machinery and piping were ripped apart as officers searched for nylon stockings. They found 40,000 pairs in various parts of the vessel, including in the engine room and behind timber linings of the ship’s inner hull. With an estimated street value of £80,000 (£2.4m in 2017 prices), the seizure was a major blow to a thriving black-market trade. The traffickers had been smuggling large numbers of American-made nylons to the UK, where they peddled the contraband hosiery to wholesalers and retailers at anything from 15 shillings to £1 a pair. In spring 1950, during what newspapers dubbed Britain’s “nylon famine”, shoppers willingly paid upwards of £2 a pair – almost £70 in today’s money.

Postwar Britain was a smuggler’s paradise, thanks to a potent combination of high tariffs, punitive tax rates, rationing, price control and a general scarcity of goods. A ready market existed for anything in short supply. As well as traditional cargoes of tobacco and spirits, smugglers ran tinned foods, butter, cosmetics, razors, records, fountain pens and lighters into the country. Of these novel cargoes, nylons proved the most popular, rivalling the established traffic in tobacco and spirits. And while postwar conditions made smuggling lucrative, they also made it low risk. A manpower shortage left an understaffed Customs department struggling to police the Irish land border, as well as an 11,073-mile coastline and roughly 600 private airfields.

When it came to the Irish border, Customs officers focused their efforts on major road and rail routes. They watched all significant ports and airports, too, and monitored Royal Mail sorting offices by randomly opening parcels from overseas. To make its task more manageable, Customs focused on civilians, overlooking all but the most serious cases of smuggling by armed forces personnel. Many of the smuggled goods stuffed into service kitbags found their way to street markets, with trade at its briskest in London’s Cutler Street market, dubbed ‘Loot Alley’.

Nylons proved an enduring favourite with postwar smugglers. Not only were pairs small, lightweight and easy to conceal, they were also in high demand. The US chemical company DuPont had patented the synthetic polymer nylon in 1938, commercial production of nylon stockings began the following year, only two years after the firm produced its first experimental pairs.

Customs officers found 40,000 pairs of nylons in the engine room and stuffed in the lining of the ship’s hull

Nylons went on general sale across the US on 15 May 1940. Cheaper than silk and more glamorous than cotton, adding a sheen to the skin without bunching around the ankle, they were an instant hit, with 4 million pairs flying off department store shelves within two days, and 64 million sold in the first year. Despite the buzz, British women had to wait a full six years for their own official ‘N-Day’ on 2 December 1946. High US demand and a shipping shortage meant the only stockings to cross the Atlantic to wartime Britain came with merchant seamen and American GIs. Although Britain started spinning nylon yarn itself in 1941, batches of the useful fibre went to factories making parachutes, parachute cordage and glider tow ropes for the war effort.

When Britain’s stockings famine finally ended in December 1946, a heavy police presence prevented a repeat of the US’s ‘nylon riots’ of the previous year – when fights broke out on shop floors as DuPont struggled to meet a surge in demand. But UK stores still ran out in a matter of hours. “We had a few dozen pairs, and reserved 25 per cent for the staff, who drew out of a hat for them,” said one Preston store manager. “The remaining 75 per cent were placed without warning on the counters for sale. I think women must be able to smell nylons from afar, because there was a queue in a few minutes, and not all could be satisfied.”

Trade secrets

This was a familiar shopping experience in the UK, where manufacturers were exporting most of their nylons into the 1950s. A British Nylon Spinners ad campaign blamed market forces: “Until the export balance rights itself again, the British lion’s share of nylon stocking must be sent abroad.” Made in Britain from British materials, nylon was a solid export that foreign buyers would pay for in hard currencies. US dollars were the most sought after: these paid for the American imports needed to rebuild the economy. Not wanting to waste scarce dollars, the British government banned US nylon imports. Plans to increase domestic supplies of stockings, however, foundered with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, which not only worsened the balance-of-payments crisis but meant more nylon yarn being consumed by war industries. MPs lobbied government to release more nylons into the home market, to little effect. Unable to buy stockings in well-known stores, their constituents turned to small retailers and traders. Few asked where the goods came from.

Tailing the spivs

The Oxford Street dealer, peddling stockings from a suitcase, was the trade’s disreputable but tolerated face. In 1951, Picture Post exposed the retail end of the trade. Reporter Kenneth Allsop and a photographer spent several days tailing the ‘spivs’, as the street traders were known. It was soon apparent that the traders and their lookouts were not operating independently. After the Oxford Street shops closed, they retired to a Marylebone cafe, where one man collected the day’s takings, before the rest placed their empty suitcases in a nearby public toilet. The collector handed the money to another man waiting outside the cafe, whom Allsop tailed back to an East End clothes shop. The following morning, a van driver dropped parcels of stockings at the lavatory in time for the spivs to collect their suitcases. Where did the stockings come from? Allsop couldn’t say whether they were stolen, factory rejects, smuggled or export strays.

Customs officers could, however. In January 1952, they prosecuted three men for smuggling 14,000 pairs of nylon stockings destined for London traders into Southampton. The nylons seized represented the last of six smuggling runs to the UK port city from New York. A complex operation came to light: Alfred Miller, a London shopkeeper, had arranged for his brother, who had a similar business in New York, to fill suitcases with nylon stockings. A ship’s steward collected the cases, which he placed on board the liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, labelling them with names supplied by Southampton travel agent with access to advance passenger lists. At the other end, a bribed Southampton porter unloaded the cases and put false chalk marks on them, so it appeared they had cleared customs. The ‘cleared’ cases were then forwarded to London, where Miller disposed of the stockings. It took Customs two years to unravel what they considered the most serious nylon-smuggling ring in the country.

Two months later, they were congratulating themselves on blocking another of the Oxford Street spivs’ sources: export strays. Two west London tailors had persuaded their friend, a Belgian cabaret singer known as Moussia, to set up a firm in Belgium importing nylon stockings. Moussia bought 55,000 pairs from a Derby firm, but did not ship a single one. Purchased at 4s 9d a pair, the stockings fetched 20–25s a pair when hawked around London’s streets and pubs.

Medicines and hashish

The nylon problem first came to public attention in August 1949, when a routine Customs check led to the discovery of stockings hidden in 128 parcels of matzos and chocolate bars sent as gifts to members of an east London Jewish congregation. Investigation revealed a sophisticated fundraising scheme to help Slovakian Holocaust survivors emigrate to London and Brooklyn. Given the abuse of the parcel post, it generated huge press coverage.

Far more significant was the illegal mail-order trade conducted by Gibraltarian and Maltese merchants. They sent circulars inviting Britons to purchase nylons, which would be posted as tax-exempt ‘gifts’. They knew that proving a gift was a mail-order purchase was difficult and costly, while convincing a court that a handful of parcels proved the existence of an illegal mail-order business was harder still. Customs officers pleaded with Labour ministers to remove the tax exemption. Rather than antagonise the public, ministers re-categorised Gibraltar and Malta as home markets – and so the trade simply shifted to Tangier.

The Moroccan city was a haven for smugglers, and the source of most mail-order stockings. As a free port, it allowed local businesses to re-export British and US nylons tax-free. At the trade’s peak, these businesses handled 45 tons of nylons a year. If any of these re-exported stockings vanished in international waters, this was no concern of the Tangerine authorities. Such ‘disappearances’ were a common occurrence between 1948 and 1954. Once in international waters, traders arranged for the unloading of their cargo into smaller, faster craft that ran the stockings to Spain, France and Italy. The smugglers favoured German E-boats and British motor torpedo boats; many of the crew members were British too. Nylons were one of several popular cargoes, which also included cigarettes (‘les blondes’), medicines and hashish.

‘Nylon Sid’ faced charges of piracy. “The men had masks like the Ku Klux Klan and carried machine guns,” said his victim

In time, the trade attracted the attention of notorious criminals. The exiled US mobster Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, head of one of New York’s five mafia families, and French gangster ‘Little Jo’ Renucci took an interest, sometimes forcibly. Luciano’s man in Tangier, ‘Nylon Sid’ Paley, ran cargoes with Renucci’s associates – an alliance that paved the way for the ‘French connection’ of the 60s and 70s, when heroin was smuggled to the US via France. The men engaged in a two-way trade: American nylons and cigarettes for Europe, and Lebanese and Turkish heroin for the US.

Nylons served as collateral in drug deals. When short of cargo, Luciano’s and Renucci’s men hijacked their rivals’ shipments at gunpoint. When one such attempt went wrong in 1952, ‘Nylon Sid’ faced charges of piracy on the high seas. “The men had masks like the Ku Klux Klan and carried machine guns,” said the ship’s master. The US consular court found Sid guilty, and he left Tangier with a three-year suspended sentence. But George Burchert, a quieter American, swiftly replaced him, and the trade continued unabated.

Despite Sid’s nickname, court reporters had failed to make the ‘Nylon connection’. Reporters knew their readers wanted a romantic story of latter-day smugglers and pirates, but one that avoided mentioning the role that organised crime played in meeting the insatiable public demand for nylon stockings. It is a link that today’s consumers of smuggled tobacco often refuse to acknowledge when puffing on a cigarette. The underworld was, and remains, our secret servant.

Mark Roodhouse is reader in modern history at the University of York. He will be discussing Nylon crime at the York Festival of Ideas on 6 June: yorkfestivalofideas.com


Nylon in numbers: how the humble stocking became hot property

In September 1946, the industry thought the average woman needed six pairs of fully fashioned nylon stockings a year.

The Retail Distribution Association predicted that only 1 in 500 women would get a pair of the stockings in time for Christmas 1946.

In December 1946, there were five types of nylon stockings available. Retail prices ranged from 8s 3d to 9s 10d, while buyers had to surrender three clothing coupons for two pairs – effectively a month’s worth of clothes rationing. A dress was worth seven coupons and a pair of women’s shoes five.

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At the time, smuggled American nylons fetched £3 a pair in Atlantic ports and £6 elsewhere – a whopping 5,900% markup on the legal US ceiling price of 2s a pair, representing a gross profit margin of 98.3% for traders.