We’ve all been living in our PJs for so long at this point, it’s hard to imagine putting on normal jeans to go to the grocery store. How does anyone function without elastic waistbands, strech denim, elasticated socks, or the hundreds of other strechy, adjustable products we use on a daily basis?
It starts with the explorers and sailors of the 17-1800s, and the Havea tree of central and south America. The tree oozed a milky white sap, known at latex, which dried into a soft flexible ball of rubber that they found hundreds of uses for, from waterproofing cloaks to sealing bottles. When they brought it back to Europe, scientists quickly got their hands on it and began experimenting.*
The Victorians loved natural rubber. They wanted to use it for everything, but it didn’t do well with heat or cold, meaning that hot summers could melt or soften a seal, and in the cold of winter they became brittle or crumbled.
Two familiar names began working to make it more practical. In England, Charles Macintosh, with partner Thomas Hancock, began experimenting with elastic fibers and threads, and in the 1820s he invented a “masticator” that mashed up rubber scraps until they became usable again. Eventually Macintosh would go on to create the items that still bear his name in the UK: top-to-tail rain gear ranging from hats, to coats and cloaks and boot.
On the other side of the pond, another Charles was making slower progress. Charles Goodyear (yes, that Goodyear). After years of trial and error, he invented vulcanization (the process of heating rubber with other compounds to make it more stable), and sent samples to various individuals and companies in England. Hancock got his hands on one of these samples and reverse engineered the process. He beat Goodyear to the patent punch in 1839, though Goodyear would take out the first American patents on the process.**
The elastic threads Macintosh started working with in the 1820s were soon worked up with other fibers to create stretchy fabric, which is why you might see elastic even on Civil War-era boots and shoes. Hancock, meanwhile, patented elastic closures for gloves and boots (remember last week when I talked about my button boots being held together with elastic? It’s period!), as well as suspenders.
The problems with putting elastic in clothing in this era were threefold. First, the ideal silhouette at the time was very structured, which doesn’t suit well to strechy, flexible fabrics. Additionally, in women’s clothing, the numerous layers and their weight required the firm support of a boned or corded corset. Your Spanx just aren’t going to hold up against three petticoats, a skirt and over skirt with bustle or crinoline. Trust me, the corset does a lot to carry and distribute the weight, though we do have a few–very few–examples from later in the 18th century and early in the 20th where manufacturers began incorporating small bands of elastic into their wares to make them easier to get on and off or more comfortable for all day wear.
The second problem came from the mentality of the people at the time. If drawstrings and buttons had worked this long, why change it? This is not so much a fear of change, as an apathy toward it. With so much change already happening in the late 1800s, it’s not shocking that people wanted something a bit more familiar closer to their bodies.
The third issue was simply one of cost and availability. The Havea trees could only grow in certain climates, and while their growth was encouraged, harvests were still limited by the number and age of trees, and by the seasons best for production. To make matters worse, in true European fashion, these white-owned plantations would cut down the trees in order to harvest the latex, rather than using them as a renewable source. No matter how many trees were planted, they couldn’t match the worldwide demand for rubber.
Things began to change after WWI. With rubber no longer needed for the war effort, it could be used in all manner of products, from refrigerator seals and automobile wheels to women’s underwear. With the flat chested look so popular among flappers, corset companies struggling to stay afloat in the post-corset era turned their attention to products we would today recognize as shapewear. Among them were tight-fitting breast bindings, and “cami-knickers” with elastic waistbands.
But the real elastic revolution was yet to come. During wartime research in the 1940s, a synthetic alternative to natural rubber was finally discovered, and the world-wide crunch for rubber eased. Now that supply was no longer limited by the number of trees and the seasons best for harvesting the latex, rubber found its way into everything, but we’ll be focusing on the textile applications, since this is primarily a textile history blog.
Boned undergarments lost favor, and more comfortable girdles that relied more on elastic fabric took over the market. It worked its way into shoes, men’s undergarments, belts and suspenders. By 1959 and the introduction of Spandex, clothing manufactures jumped at new casual styles for exercise and snugger, figure hugging dresses. It was used for swim suits for the first time. (For more information on the chemistry involved and the differences between rubber, synthetic rubber, and spandex, click here.)
Today, lycra, elastic, and rubber products can be found in everything from throw blankets to dog harnesses, from high end shoes to kitchen tools, from typewriters to computers, cars, roads, wiring, and more. It’s truly ubiquitous, but it wasn’t always that way.
I’m not sure about you, but as much as I love my corsets and Victorian boots, I’ll stick with my PJ pants and tee shirts for now.
*To be clear, the natives of this region had known about latex for about 3,000 years and used it for a variety of purposes, even creating their own form of vulcanization, but it wasn’t introduced to industrial Europe until the 1740s.
**I’m consolidating a lot of history and information here, so if you want to know more about Goodyear, Hancock, and Macintosh, please see this article.
History of Elastic–(This article isn’t as detailed, but does show the harvesting of latex)
Hancock and the Rubber Band
Elastic in early 19th century clothes
How Stuff Works
1929 article from The Guardian on caring for elasticated clothing
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