Enjoy our second blog in a 10-part series on the history of our remarkable company, as we celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Celanese.
The 1930s brought a multitude of events across the globe. We begin the decade with economic devastation caused by the stock market crash on October 24, 1929, also known as Black Thursday.
Consumer confidence had deteriorated, leading to a downturn in spending and industrial production, resulting in the unemployment of thousands of factory workers. As many industries, including coal, glass and textiles, were negatively impacted, Cumberland, Maryland residents were fortunate to find employment at the Celanese plant, which employed more than 12,000 workers.
At the height of the Great Depression, 15 million Americans were unemployed and almost half the country’s banks had failed, but despite the desperate economic situation, Celanese Corporation of America commenced trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 1930.
Amidst global turmoil, Celanese continued to thrive. The company began research in 1932 at the Cumberland plant on the direct oxidation of natural gas liquids, which contain propane and butane. This was important because propane and butane were an inexpensive means to create acetaldehyde, which was primarily used by the company as an intermediate in the synthesis of other chemicals, including polyester resins.
From the research, two discoveries emerged: First, acetaldehyde could be made by the vapor phase oxidation of propane. Second, the vapor phase oxidation of propane produced not only acetaldehyde but also large quantities of formaldehyde, which is found in chemicals, adhesives, fabrics and coatings, all products which are still part of the Celanese product portfolio today.
Across the pond in 1934, Adolf Hitler became führer (absolute dictator) of Germany, and Mao Zedong began the long march North in a military retreat undertaken by the Red Army of the Communist party of China to avoid pursuit by the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party.
In addition, war broke out between China and Japan in 1936 when the Chinese fought Japan with aid from the Soviet Union and the United States.
Throughout the decade, Celanese continued producing acetate yarn. Though the first acetate yarn produced in Cumberland and Spondon met with resistance from consumers and silk manufacturers, by 1939 the business began reporting extraordinary profits. It seemed that Celanese had, once again, discovered a need (an alternative to expensive silk fabric) and filled it with its versatile acetate yarn.
By the end of the 1930s, acetate yarn was six times as plentiful as silk in American clothing. As it was far less expensive than silk and much easier to clean and care for, sales of acetate yarn increased despite economic conditions. It also provided the inspiration for the company’s new name, “Celanese,” by combining “cellulose” (the organic compound used to make acetate yarn) and “ease,” commenting on the ease of cleaning and caring for the fabric.
The Dreyfus brothers encountered a challenge with their dyeing operation, as the process used for silk and other natural fabrics was not as effective in dyeing their manmade fabric. By 1939, however, a practical method of dyeing yarn had been developed by the Dreyfus brothers, Dr. Rene Clavel, a Swiss dye chemist and George Holland Ellis, an English chemist, which greatly improved the salability of acetate yarn.
As the advertisements of the 1930s showed, Celanese fabrics were considered rich in simplicity and texture and were resistant to shrinking and stretching as well as colorfast. With trademarked brands such as “Chifonese” and “Clairanese,” Celanese emerged as a high-fashion manufacturer of soft, luxurious fabric that was also durable and easy to clean.
An October 1935 issue of House Beautiful describes Clairanese as, “. . . a softly luminous taffeta, crisp to the touch, shimmering. . . It is pure dye, naturally supple and luxurious, so that dry cleaning need never be its enemy. It may even safely be washed. And its lovely colors are unusually fast.”
Celanese continued to expand in the U.S., as the Narrows plant, located on Route 460 in Narrows, Virginia, along the scenic New River began operations on Christmas Day in 1939. The New River Valley site was chosen because of its proximity to coal fields, an abundant supply of water and good rail transportation; the plant still operates 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.
Having weathered the storm of the Great Depression, Celanese watched with the rest of the world, as Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and the U.S., British, Soviet Union and French militaries prepared for the second world war.
Discover how the company responded to the demands of the second world war in our May blog featuring the third decade of Celanese. Be sure to visit our interactive digital timeline and follow us on social media. As always, we welcome your feedback, questions and comments. Enjoy!