Rayon was the world’s first man-made fiber. Developed and marketed by DuPont, it initiated the transformation of the textile industry that continues with new generations of DuPont synthetics. In the 1880s a Frenchman, Count Hillaire de Chardonnet, discovered that nitrocellulose derived from rags or wood pulp could be used to produce a man-made fiber.
By the turn of the century, “artificial silk” made from the Chardonnet process had become popular for decorative uses. At the same time, English inventors developed a newer, more effective process and product called Viscose.
During its early 20th century diversification efforts, DuPont grew interested in the Viscose process, particularly after raw silk prices and consumer attraction to artificial silk both rose. DuPont attempted to enter the fiber business by acquiring the American Viscose Company, but was rebuffed, and in 1920 licensed the French process instead.
The company then established the DuPont Fibersilk Company in Buffalo, N.Y., under Leonard Yerkes to develop the process. After the generic name “rayon” was coined in 1924, the enterprise was renamed the DuPont Rayon Company.
The product was profitable from the start, and through the 1920s rayon earned DuPont a 33 percent return on investment. Among the process improvements DuPont made were the production of short-strand “staple” fiber, suitable for bulk woven items, and dry spinning. Sales of textile fiber dropped during the 1930s, leading DuPont to introduce the highly successful Cordura rayon tire cord, but by the end of the decade rayon was six times as plentiful as silk in American clothing, and the market supported eight DuPont rayon plants.
DuPont’s rayon operations had a secondary benefit. The expertise gained there proved critical to the rapid development of nylon during the late 1930s. Although rayon was a man-made fiber, it was not a pure synthetic since its basic component, cellulose, was naturally fibrous. After World War II rayon fell victim to the success of the “true” synthetics, Orlon, Dacron and nylon. DuPont produced its last rayon textile yarn in 1960 and tire cord was phased out two years later.