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“…there may be no forgiveness for polyester. On this one matter, Satan and the Lord are in agreement”*…

Polyester has had a roller coaster ride as a clothing fabric, but now it’s sitting pretty. As Virginia Postrel explains, thanks to advances in materials science, it reinvented itself so successfully that many people don’t even realize they’re wearing polyester today…

Fifty years ago, polyester seemed like a wonder fabric. It freed women from their ironing boards, and they poured into the workforce, feeling liberated in their double-knit pantsuits. Polyester held bright colors better than old-fashioned materials, making it ideal for psychedelic prints, disco attire, and sports teams clashing on color television. It was inexpensive, and it didn’t wear out. People loved polyester.

Until they didn’t. A decade later, polyester was the faux pas fiber. It pilled and snagged. It didn’t breathe. It stank from sweat. And it represented bad taste. ‘It became associated with people of low socioeconomic status who didn’t have any style’, an advertising executive told the Wall Street Journal in 1982.

That year, prices fell by more than 10 percent, as polyester fiber consumption dropped to its lowest level since 1974. Profits plummeted. Plants closed. Industry polls showed a quarter of Americans wouldn’t touch the stuff – with resistance fiercest among the young, the affluent, and the fashion-conscious. For polyester makers, the miracle threatened to become a disaster…

Four decades later, polyester rules the textile world. It accounts for more than half of global fiber consumption, about twice that of second-place cotton. Output stands at nearly 58 million tons a year, more than 10 times what it was in the early ’80s. And nobody complains about polyester’s look and feel. If there’s a problem today, it’s that people like polyester too much. It’s everywhere, even at the bottom of the ocean…

On the past and future of a ubiquitous fiber: “How polyester bounced back,” from @vpostrel.

* “He paused, twisting his goatee, considering the law in Deuteronomy that forbade clothes with mixed fibers. A problematic bit of Scripture. A matter that required thought. ‘Only the devil wants man to have a wide range of lightweight and comfortable styles to choose from,’ he murmured at last, trying out a new proverb. ‘Although there may be no forgiveness for polyester. On this one matter, Satan and the Lord are in agreement’.” – Joe Hill, Horns

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As we contemplate clothing, we might send inventive birthday greetings to Ron Popeil; he was born on this date in 1935. An inventor and entrepreneur, he developed dozens of best-selling products and pioneered the direct-response infomercial form of sales.

At the age of 17, Popeil moved to Chicago and went to work for his father to learn the trade from him. Popeil’s father, Samuel J. Popeil, was an inventor as well, and some of Ron’s earlier famous creations were based on his father’s gadgets. He also discovered a flea market in Chicago called Maxwell Street that helped boost his career considerably. He also demonstrated his products at Woolworths’ in Chicago where he earned in excess of $1000 per week. After acting as his father’s distributor for a few years, Popeil eventually opened up his own company named “Ronco” in 1964.

When Popeil was working for his father, one of the products he undertook to sell was a vegetable chopper called “Chop-O-Matic”. Priced at $3.98, this was one of the bestselling products of his company and sold over 2 million units. The only problem was that salesmen could not carry enough vegetables with them to demonstrate the chopping process at each house. The solution was to record a video demonstrating the use of the gadget. This led him to think about advertising these videos as a commercial on television. Television commercials and Popeil were an instant match. Popeil’s natural selling skills could now reach crowds of millions and further sales began to pour in.

Ron had a long list of bestselling products with his company Ronco. One was a device called the “pocket fisherman” that is a small tackle box with hook, line, and sinker all in one. He called it “the best fishing invention since the fishing pole and only for $19.95”. Another invention was “Mr. Microphone” – a low powered FM modulator and radio transmitter that would broadcast using an FM radio. Another of his bestsellers was the “Showtime Rotisserie” oven for cooking chicken and BBQ. In his infomercials he used the line “Set it, and forget it!” to pitch the product to audiences. Other products include smokeless ashtray, drain buster, bottle cap opener, electric food dehydrator, egg scrambler, hair formula to cover up bald patches, Dial-O-Matic, and a pasta maker.

Famous Inventors

And Popeil was also hugely impactful in the ways that he sold his products, helping to develop and establishing a number of the norms and tropes of the infomercial, including the now-standard catchphrases “But wait, there’s more” and “Operators are standing by.”

Ron Popeil with his “Showtime Rotisserie”

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