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twitchery, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
twitchery, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Cracking the History of L'eggs Pantyhose

twitchery, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
twitchery, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was Robert Elberson’s job to take stock of a woman’s legs, and what he saw didn’t please him. It was 1968, and the recently-appointed president of Hanes Hosiery Mill Co. observed a growing number of pantyhose customers were grabbing cheap stockings at grocery stores for the sake of convenience. While a woman might shop for food multiple times a week, she would likely only head to a department store once every month or two. Rather than wait, she would purchase undergarments when it was most convenient.

The message was clear: Hanes needed to get its product into supermarkets. They would also have to stand out from the 600-plus other manufacturers who were producing pantyhose. Elberson needed a radical departure from the mundane cardboard packages. What his advertising firm came up with ended up revolutionizing the undergarment industry, and made the grocery store aisle practically competition-proof. It was called L’eggs, and it became a piece of retail art.

Ladies' undergarments experienced several radical paradigm shifts in the 20th century. Man-made nylon stockings, introduced at the 1939 New York World's Fair, provided an alternative to silk, which was pleasing to the eye and soft to the touch but tended to run and snag. When nylon was co-opted for the war effort, women drew “seams” on their legs to replicate the look and then practically rioted when stockings were once again made available.

In 1959, single-piece pantyhose made the labor of garters largely a thing of the past. Cheap to make and distribute, hundreds of companies glutted the market with product. But unlike other major consumer categories, there was no Coke or Pepsi—or even an RC Cola—of the pantyhose world; consumers had no brand loyalty. Pantyhose were pantyhose.

What women did prefer was buying them outside of department stores. This became even more apparent as the miniskirt and other slender fashion offerings made hem lines undesirable, and sales of hosiery climbed. Women, Elberson noted, embraced the convenience of tossing a pair of pantyhose in their cart along with bread and milk, even if the quality was poor. Hanes had been sticking with department stores. It was time for a change.

In 1968, Elberson and Hanes planning manager (and future executive vice president) David E. Harrold instructed their employees to begin work on designing a product that would capture a woman’s attention in the supermarket aisles. Because they feared department store buyers would revolt, they codenamed the project “V-1” and relegated it to the basement of the Hanes plant in Weeks, North Carolina. They enlisted graphic designer Roger Ferriter, of the ad firm Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, to revitalize the clichéd packaging common at the time: hose stretched over a piece of cardboard and inserted into a plastic sleeve.

Ferriter’s idea came to him the morning he was scheduled to make his presentation to Hanes. Crumpling the pantyhose in his hand, he realized it could fit inside an eggshell—and eggs, in Ferriter’s mind, were representative of something new, fresh, and natural. He gave it the name “L’eggs” and won over the Hanes executives in an instant.

Another designer, Fred Howard, developed the perfect complement to the egg-shaped package—a revolving display that housed the L’eggs shells and nothing else, so stores would be unable to stuff competing pantyhose in the rack. Hanes also eliminated wholesalers; they sold stores the product on consignment and hired sales reps to maintain the displays.

The one-size-fits-all L’eggs eggs made their debut in 1971. Hanes knew women wanted pantyhose in grocery stores. But how would they respond to an egg?

Within months, L’eggs was the top-selling brand in the hosiery market. Consumers were captivated by the package, the fact that the product largely held up over time, and the idea that they no longer had to feel obligated to run to a clothing or apparel store in order to replace a torn pair of stockings. Hanes recorded $120 million in L’eggs sales in 1972 alone. By 1976, they had taken 27 percent of the entire grocery store pantyhose business, virtually double that of their nearest competitor.

Like the Quaker Oats can and actual egg cartons, the L’eggs containers proved to be an enduring presence in the household. Some people used them as holiday decorations, party favors, or planters; Hanes had tremendous marketing success tweaking them in different colors for holiday promotions. They even released a book offering dozens of craft ideas. It sold 23,000 copies in its first month of release.

Despite the fact that L’eggs appeared to be a utilitarian product purchase, the growing eco-consciousness of consumers in the 1980s began to reject the idea that Hanes’s plastic design was good for the environment. From the perspective of Hanes, it was also a shipping hassle: the “dead space” in the egg not taken up by the rumpled pantyhose added to delivery costs. In 1992, the company unveiled a new, recyclable cardboard package with an ovoid top resembling an egg.

While the original L’eggs package reappears periodically for anniversaries and promotional duties, the design has largely been rendered obsolete by waste concerns. As a monument to retail design, however, it was once stocked in some of the most valuable shelf space in the world: the Museum of Modern Art.

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One Small Leap: The Enduring Appeal of Mexican Jumping Beans
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In the fall of 1923, street vendors in Santa Barbara, California received an unexpected bit of attention regarding one of their more popular wares: The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the sellers' “freakish little brown seeds” that “cavorted about to the edification and delight of children and grownups."

Those “freakish” seeds were (and still are) known as Mexican jumping beans. Part novelty item and part entomology lesson, they’ve been a staple of street vendors, carnival workers, and comic book ads for nearly a century, thanks to their somewhat inexplicable agility. Some early theories posited that the beans moved because of electrostatic charging, or because of tiny gas explosions inside—but in reality, it was a larva living in the bean. In Santa Barbara, the local Humane Society was concerned that the tiny caterpillar was somehow suffering in the heat; a police sergeant confiscated several of the seeds and took them home to investigate.

THE BEAN MYTH

In truth, the bean is not really a bean at all but a seed pod. In the spring, adult moths deposit their eggs into the flower of the yerba de flecha (Sebastiana pavoniana) shrub, which is native to the mountains of northwestern Mexico. The hatched larvae nestle into the plant's seed pods, which fall off the tree, taking the larvae inside with them.

Each larva is quite content to remain in its little biosphere until it enters its pupal stage and eventually bores a hole to continue life as a moth. (But only when it’s good and ready: If the pod develops a hole before then, the caterpillar will repair it using natural webbing it makes.) The pod is porous and the larvae can eat the interior for nourishment. Metabolic water creates moisture for the larva, but it never needs to pee. Essentially, it's the ultimate in downsized efficiency living.

A Mexican jumping bean store display
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When it's in the pod, the larva isn’t exactly dormant: It twists and contorts itself to create encapsulated movement, almost like the snap of a rubber band. When it moves, so does the pod. No one is exactly sure why they do this, though some believe it's to keep the pod from settling on a hot surface (as high temperatures can be deadly to the insect).

The larva will keep up this activity for six to eight weeks. If a pod appears lifeless and rattles when shaken, it’s probably dead. If it lives, it will go dormant in winter before creating an escape hatch in the spring and flying off to begin life as a moth.

CHEAP THRILLS

It’s hard to know who exactly first decided to begin hawking the “beans” for amusement purposes, though some credit an enterprising man named Joaquin Hernandez with popularizing them in novelty shops in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, Joy Clement of Chaparral Novelties noticed the beans after her husband, a candy wholesaler, brought them home from a business trip. Though she was initially confounded by their appeal, Clement agreed to distribute the pods and watched them grow into a significant success: Between 1962 and 1994, Chaparral shipped 3 to 5 million of them each year, and saw the bean transition from sidewalk dealers to major chains like KB Toys.

“There's not much you can buy at a retail store that can give you this kind of satisfaction for under a buck," one bean dealer told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "It's one of the last of the low-end entertainments available in the world.”

Interest in the beans seems to come in waves, though that can sometimes depend on the weather in Mexico. The jumping bean's unusual insect-crop hybrid stature means that farmers in Álamos, Sonora—where the pod is harvested and remains the area's major export—rely heavily on ideal conditions. Lowered rainfall can result in lower yields. Álamos typically handles more than 20,000 liters of the pods annually. In 2005, thanks to unfavorable weather, it was just a few hundred.

BEAN PANIC

There have been other issues with marketing hermetic caterpillars for novelty purposes. A UPS driver once grew nervous that he was transporting a rattlesnake thanks to a shipment of particularly active pods. Bomb squads have been called in on at least two occasions because the noise prompted airport workers to believe a ticking explosive device was in their midst. And then there was the Humane Society, which remained dubious the beans were an ethical plaything. (Since the caterpillars repair breaches to the pod, the reasoning is that it seems like they want to be in there, though no one can say whether the insects enjoy being handled or stuffed into pockets.)

You can still find the beans today, including via online retailers. They’re harmless and buying them as "toys" is probably not harmful to the caterpillar inside, though the standard disclaimer warning owners not to eat the beans remains. The police sergeant in Santa Barbara found that out the hard way: After taking his nightly prescription pill, he felt an odd sensation and went to the hospital. After physicians pumped his stomach, they noted that he had accidentally consumed a jumping bean. In his digestive tract, it was leaping to get out.

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Michael Jackson's Moonwalk Turns 35

“What the hell was that?” For a moment, members of the production staff monitoring the stage at California's Pasadena Civic Auditorium forgot about the control panels in front of them and exchanged puzzled looks with one another. As the team charged with overseeing the ABC special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, a celebration of the famed record label’s silver anniversary, they were typically too focused on their jobs to become starstruck. But what they were witnessing was something else entirely.

Onetime Jackson 5 bandmate Michael Jackson had taken the stage solo to perform “Billie Jean,” which was already the number one song on the Billboard Top 100 chart. In between all the twisting, contorting, and spinning, Jackson took a fleeting moment to glide backwards on his feet. It had the smooth kinetic energy of someone skating on ice. It lasted barely a second. The crowd erupted.

Jackson had not used the dance move in rehearsals for the show. It was a surprise to everyone, including the live audience and the 33.9 million people who would watch the tape-delayed event on television on May 16, 1983. Jackson was already a superstar, but his moonwalk would take him to another stratosphere of fame. And although many assumed Jackson invented the gliding step himself, he was simply following in the footsteps of dance giants from the past.

Usually referred to as the back slide or the back float, the seemingly weightless backward slide had touched down across a number of decades and performers before Jackson's interpretation debuted on March 25, 1983. Famed French mime Marcel Marceau performed an act he titled “Walking in the Wind,” in which he seemed to be bracing against imaginary gale forces, his feet trying to find purchase on the ground. Jazz singer Cab Calloway pulled it off in performances; so did tap dancer Bill Bailey (as seen above) in the 1950s. James Brown incorporated the move into his stage shows, as did Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson. David Bowie performed a more economical version of it during the 1973 tour for his Aladdin Sane album.

While Jackson credited Brown and Marcel as being particular influences on his performance style, he first learned of what he came to call the "moonwalk" after seeing two break-dancers appear on a 1979 episode of Soul Train. During the show, Geron "Caszper" Canidate and Cooley Jaxson performed a routine set to Jackson’s “Workin’ Day and Night.” The singer remembered the performance and asked his staff to arrange a meeting between him and both men in Los Angeles while he was preparing for the Motown special in early 1983. Jackson asked them to teach him the back slide, which he practiced until he was satisfied he had it down. (Cooley would later express disappointment that Jackson never credited the duo directly. The singer wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalker, that the move was a “break-dance” step created on street corners. While that could be true, it was Cooley and Jaxson who gave Jackson a tutorial.)

Although it may look like an optical illusion, the step is the result of weight-shifting. Dancers begin on their right foot, heel raised, and weight bearing on the right. As they lower the right heel, the left foot moves backward until the toes are aligned with the heel of the right. The left heel is then raised, weight is shifted to the left, and the process repeats itself. For those who are not particularly agile, it can look clumsy. For Jackson, who had been dancing practically his entire life, it was seamless.

For the Motown special, Jackson reportedly agreed to appear with his brothers, the Jackson 5, only if Motown owner and show producer Berry Gordy allowed him a solo performance. Jackson’s Thriller album had been released in November 1982 and was on its way to becoming one of the most successful releases of all time. It’s likely Jackson didn’t feel like he needed the appearance, and some accounts relate that Jackson was initially reluctant to do it because he feared being overexposed. Gordy’s producer, Suzanne de Passe, convinced him the show wouldn’t be the same without the Jackson 5.

Whatever got Jackson on stage that evening, he was clearly prepared for the moment. Short pants and white socks drew attention to his feet; he insisted a stage manager rehearse the placement of his hat following the Jackson 5 performance so that it would be within reach when he segued into his solo performance.

“I have to say, those were the good old days,” Jackson told the crowd after finishing with his brothers. “Those were good songs. I like those songs a lot … but, especially, I like the new songs.” It may have sounded off the cuff, but Jackson’s mid-performance speech was actually written by Motown 25 scriptwriter Buz Kohan.

With that, Jackson got down to business. “Billie Jean” was the only non-Motown song performed during the special, and it felt like a jolt of energy in a sea of nostalgia. Jackson, who was 24 years old at the time, moved effortlessly. Tossing his hat to the side and mouthing lyrics into the microphone, the contrast between Jackson in the middle of a medley with his brothers and then alone on stage was striking. Though he was two solo albums deep by this point, the performance helped cement that he was out on his own.

Jackson spent nearly three and a half minutes singing before debuting the moonwalk. It lasted barely a second but seemed to send the crowd into a mania. With 20 seconds to go, he took another few brief steps backward. After the song played out, Jackson received a standing ovation.

When the performance aired several weeks later on ABC, Motown 25 was a ratings hit. Jackson’s reputation as a live entertainer benefited from a broadcast network audience, and the moonwalk became linked to his routine. Fred Astaire called to congratulate him, a gesture that Jackson—a huge Astaire fan—could never quite believe.

Jackson’s fame led to an untold number of people trying to perfect the moonwalk, with varying degrees of success. Anyone who thought it included some camera or visual trickery may have been dismayed to find it simply required some lower-limb dexterity. Those who got the hang of it were able to impress friends. Those who didn't probably felt a little disappointed at their lack of coordination, especially when they heard that Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, learned to do a variation of it.

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