Cotton may be the fabric of our lives, but there was a time, after World War II, when it faced an existential crisis. After the war, synthetic fibers (nylon, polyester) were introduced to Americans—and what those materials lacked in comfort and coolness, they made up for with one significant advantage: They didn’t wrinkle.
For women, in particular, that was a significant benefit. But the cotton industry—farmers, manufacturers—began to fear that the material that had been such a significant part of the country’s development would become obsolete. If you were a housewife charged with the laundering of your family’s clothing, you’d most likely have wanted to outfit your family in clothes that didn’t require hours of ironing.
Enter Ruth Rogan Benerito, the chemist who is often credited with one of the 20th century’s most significant developments in the realm of technologically mediated fashion: Benerito helped to create wrinkle-resistant cotton.
Benerito grew up in New Orleans, completing high school at 14 and entering college at 15. Encouraged by her parents—and despite the fact that the Great Depression had left her few job prospects in the field—she pursued a career in science, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago. In 1950, she married Frank Benerito, and went to work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Southern Regional Research Laboratories in New Orleans. She would spend most of her career there.
While at the USDA, Benerito and her team set their sights on cotton—and, in particular, on changing the molecular structure of cotton fibers so that they would, like synthetics, resist wrinkles. The problem was hydrogen: Hydrogen's bonds are weak and easily broken, which made the overall fabric prone to wrinkling. The team found a way to strengthen the hydrogen bonds between the cellulose molecules in the cotton—by, essentially, inserting short, organic molecules between them through a system of "crosslinking."
The result? A new molecule that had different properties from the original cellulose molecules—one that would not easily wrinkle. The material was quickly put to use in clothing, minimizing the drudgery of ironing for many a harried housewife. For this reason, wrinkle-free cotton, The New York Times notes today, is considered "one of the most significant technological developments of the 20th century." And that was in part because it led to other innovations in cotton fabrics, including flame resistance and stain resistance. For her role in bringing about those improvements, Benerito was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008.
Benerito passed away this weekend at the age of 97, with more than 50 patents to her name. (Only some of those, the Times points out in its obituary, relate to cotton chemistry.) While some, today, may resent her contribution—Slate once called the garments that have been fabricated from wrinkle-resistant cotton "vehicles of self-mortification, sackcloth and ashes adorned with stripes and spread collars"—Benerito's invention was one of those small steps forward that proved, ultimately, to be a leap. One people made in clothes that stubbornly refused to wrinkle.