Two Babes in the Black Market

Black market nylon stockings? There was a time and a place when they were extremely valued.

Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham.

In 1943, I worked as a file clerk for the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at its facility in Camden. Twice a week, two of us girls, both just out of high school at age 17, would cross the street to the huge shipyard to pick up old battleship blueprints and bring them back to the office for shredding.

One Wednesday, we went to the machinists’ department, which was run by Mr. Anderson—a man with connections. I happened to mention that the thing I missed most because of all the wartime shortages was nylon stockings.

Mr. Anderson said, “I can get you nylons, but they’ll cost you a buck.” Though a dollar was a fortune in those days, a woman in the office said, “I’ll take a pair, Jim.” Another said, “I’ll take two pair.” Obviously, everybody was doing this. Without hesitation, we each ordered the nylons.

Walking back to the office, we began to question our impulsive decision. “This is not right,” I told Doris. “You know this is the black market. Our boys are dying overseas. We shouldn’t be doing this.” Doris agreed. “My brother’s in the Army. He’d be so disappointed in me.”

The next day, we went back to Mr. Anderson. “We changed our minds,” we told him. “It’s not right. Our boys are dying overseas. We shouldn’t be dealing with the black market.”

“Look, girls,” he said. “We placed that order. The truck will be in tonight. You ordered them. You’re buying them.”

We were shocked. “But our boys are dying overseas,” I repeated. “It’s not right.” Mr. Anderson was unmoved.

When we got back to the office a few hours later, our boss, Mr. Dilks, called us in and closed the door behind us. There were two men with him. “Edyth, Doris. These gentlemen are from the FBI. They want to talk to you.” They flashed silver badges with their pictures on them.

We just about died. “But we changed our minds,” I said. “We’re not taking the stockings. Really. Our boys are dying overseas, and it just isn’t right.”

“But you ordered stockings, knowing they were black market goods,” Mr. Dilks said.

“Yes, but we canceled the order,” I replied.

One of the agents said to me, “Miss Williams, your father is a sub-foreman here in the welding department. Is he in on this?” I was petrified: It was the first time anyone had ever called me Miss Williams.

I was in tears. “No. Certainly not.”

“We’ll have to investigate him anyway.” I cried even harder. “My father will kill me.”

Back at our desks, we continued to cry. Finally I said, “Let’s go talk to Mr. Dilks by himself. We’ll make him understand.”

As we entered Mr. Dilks’s office, he and the two “agents” were laughing so hard they couldn’t speak. It turns out that Mr. Anderson had called our boss, who recruited the two men from the drafting department.

My father, like everyone else at the shipyard, heard the story almost immediately. “Did you think someone in the real black market would trust that information to two 17-year-olds? Are you really that naïve?”

Every so often, for the rest of the war, we would walk into some department and someone would bellow, “I can get you some cheap nylons. How about it, girls?”

Of course we said no. Our boys were dying overseas.

Edyth Montgomery lived in South Jersey for 81 years. She now resides in Chalfont, Pennsylvania.

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