February 22, 2024

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, February 14th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next up: the WORLD History Book. Today, a chemist makes an enduring contribution to fashion; the first all-black basketball team takes to the floor; and a retail mogul crafts a sterling reputation. Here’s senior correspondent Katie Gaultney.

CLIP: Don’t you just love it?/ What?/ Tiffany’s!

KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Breakfast at Tiffany’s propelled the high-end boutique to legendary status.

SONG: Nocturne, Op. 27 no. 2, Chopin

But well over a century before Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard’s cinematic visit, founder Charles Lewis Tiffany opened a humble stationery and gift shop in New York City. This week marks the anniversaries of Tiffany’s birth and death.

Born on February 15th, 1812—210 years ago—Tiffany set out as a young man to open that gift shop in the Big Apple. The store made less than $5 in its first few days of business, but over time, its success grew along with its product offerings. Tiffany began selling glassware, porcelain, cutlery, clocks, and, of course, jewelry.

A skilled businessman, Tiffany took advantage of political upheaval in Europe in the mid-1800s, buying up diamonds at a steep discount. The successful sale of those stones in the years that followed allowed the jewelry titan to open storefronts in Paris and London, and he upgraded his New York store to a Fifth Avenue location. At the onset of the American Civil War, he pivoted, hammering out weapons instead of jewelry.

SONG: “Moon River,” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s

He and his wife, Harriet, had two daughters and four sons—one of whom became a glass artist and pioneered the colorful “Tiffany lamp.”

The family patriarch died of pneumonia on February 18th, 1902—just three days after his 90th birthday. At the time, his company was worth $2 million. In January 2021, luxury brand Louis Vuitton’s parent company purchased Tiffany & Co. for $15.8 billion.

And from selling baubles to sinking baskets.

Today, black players make up about 75 percent of the NBA. But, it hasn’t always been so. Here’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a 2011 documentary, On the Shoulders of Giants.

ABDUL-JABBAR: I find it really hard to believe that NBA players today are not aware of the fact that the NBA, when it started, was segregated.

That didn’t stop an all-black, black-owned team from forming on February 13th, 1923—99 years ago.

MUSIC: [Roaring 20s music]

In the early 20th century, New York’s Harlem became a destination for black Americans and immigrants. Bob Douglas had arrived in Harlem from the British West Indies. He created and coached the New York Renaissance basketball team. Douglas negotiated with a fellow Caribbean immigrant to let the team play at the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom in exchange for naming rights. A dance followed every game. When they weren’t playing at the Renaissance, they barnstormed, traveling the country to play any team who would sell tickets and host them.

Douglas led the “Rens” over the next 16 years to a dominating record of 2,318 wins and 381 losses. The team routinely beat the all-white national champion teams like the Original Celtics and the Oshkosh All Stars.

At the time, black teams could compete for so-called “colored” championships. Every now and then, as a novelty and a money-grab, promoters would organize black team-versus-white team contests.

The high salaries and prize money resided with other national championships, though, so black players faced limited income potential. Charles Barkley reflected on how the sport has changed.

BARKLEY: These young guys think they’ll make $20 million because they can play. They were just born at the right time.

The team disbanded right before the 1949-1950 NBA season, when that league finally desegregated. In 1963, the Basketball Hall of Fame collectively inducted the New York Renaissance team. Six individual players are also Hall of Famers, as is founder and coach Bob Douglas.

And for our last entry, would it be too much of a stretch to talk about nylon?

Eighty-five years ago, on February 16th, 1937, Wallace Carothers was a chemist at the DuPont company when he received a U.S. patent for the textile.

ANNOUNCER: By a miracle of modern science, such commonplace things as coal, water, and air have been transformed into threads more elastic than silk!

Dupont marketed the invention aggressively, calling it the “first man-made organic textile fiber,” “as strong as steel, as fine as the spider’s web.” The company supplied nylon thread to women’s stocking manufacturers.

ANNOUNCER: Stockings are made on the knitting machines in a hosiery mill. See how the nylon threads move in and out and back and forth among the needles.

And as soon as the product came to market in 1940, there was a run on the hosiery—which is better than a run in the hosiery. Nylon stockings flew off shelves at $1.15 a pair, selling out halfway through the first day.

DuPoint managed to snag 30 percent of the hosiery market just about the same time as the dawn of World War II in the United States.

ANNOUNCER: These young men know that they can depend on their parachutes. Only the highest grade of silk or nylon is used.

Wartime needs prompted the company to turn from ladies fashion to parachutes, cords and ropes, shoelaces, hammocks, and other useful items.

Today, beyond hosiery, nylon has had a good run. In combination with other fibers, it has loads of applications, from carpets, guitar strings, wedding gowns, tennis shoes, luggage, and even surgical sutures.

That’s this week’s History Book. I’m Katie Gaultney.

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