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.