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Du Pont: From French Exiles to the Toast of the Brandywine

This is a guest post by 2021 Junior Fellow, Hannah Spring Pfeifer. Hannah is pursuing graduate degrees in American History and Nonprofit Management at Villanova University.

Print showing a brood of quail nesting in tall grass.

“Du Pont smokeless shotgun powder – the standard of the world.” c. 1913. Print: Lynn Bogue Hunt, artist. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Along the serene Brandywine River in Delaware, the stone buildings of the Eleutherian Mills stand, some little more than ruins, others the same as they were in the mill’s nineteenth century heyday. It was here, in 1802, that Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours founded his powder works and began the legacy of a powerful and wealthy French American family.

Before coming to America, the du Pont family lived in a chaotic France. The French Revolution began in 1789 as a rebellion against monarchy and abuses of power. Many commoners and educated middle-class people joined the uprising, hoping to dethrone King Louis XVI and gain equal representation within a democratic society. E.I. du Pont was a young man during the revolution, working in his father’s print shop, although his passion and training was in manufacturing black powder and explosives. His father, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, was a nobleman who both worked for the monarchy and inspired liberal economic reforms, eventually becoming president of the National Constituent Assembly.

Print shows a large bull labeled "Tiers Etat - Orleans" referring to Louis Philippe Joseph, duc d'Orleans, tossing Marie Antoinette into the air as Louis XVI kneels in prayer on the left; standing behind the bull, in formation, are the "Corps de Garde" wearing beer tankards, labeled "Libertas", with foaming head, on their heads as they sing, "O de Roast Beef of Old England and O de old English Roast Beef."

Revolution, or Johnny Bull in France. July 25, 1789. Image: W. Dent, publisher. British Cartoon Prints Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

After he and E.I. defended Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from an angry mob, Pierre was sentenced to be guillotined, but escaped punishment due to the Thermidorian Reaction. In 1800, Pierre, E.I., and his other son, Victor, immigrated on the American Eagle with their wives, children, and various other relations, to the United States, where they quickly became important players in the Industrial Revolution.

Arriving on January 1, 1800, the du Pont family made their way to New Jersey, Pierre and Victor’s minds spinning with all the potential this new home brought. They established Du Pont de Nemours Father & Sons & Company of New York, immediately brainstorming ideas for economic success. Pierre even received support from both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, leaders of the opposing Democratic-Republican and Federalist parties respectively. Meanwhile, E.I. du Pont explored the new country. On a hunting trip, he noticed that American gunpowder was poor quality yet expensive because it was the only option in the sparsely populated wilderness. E.I., with his chemistry and powder-making background, pitched an idea for a powder mill along the Brandywine River to his father and brother. Quality gunpowder was produced mainly by Great Britain, but the du Ponts, Jefferson, and French financial backers supported E.I., hoping to increase French influence on the United States and strengthen the Franco-American alliance. For $36,000, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company was founded in 1802.

The Brandywine River appealed to E.I. du Pont because it was short and steep. Often known just as DuPont, the company built dams and a mill race to harness the river’s potential water energy, which was controlled with water wheels, turbines, and gear shifts. Everything at the powder mill, from the roll mills to the millwright shops, was water-powered, which let DuPont function independently.

Two story stone building near a quiet river.

DuPont Powder Mill, Hagley Museum, on Brandywine River, Greenville, New Castle County, DE. c. 1933. Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Another benefit of the river was the safety it provided the workers. Making gunpowder was a dangerous job, because when the ingredients were mixed together, they became explosive. The roll mills were pairs of stone buildings, closed on three sides and open on the side facing the river. The mill workers filled wooden vats with sulphur, charcoal, and saltpeter; they added bit water to reduce the chance of explosions. Turbines powered the mixing process, during which workers stood behind the stone walls because an explosion was most likely to be triggered when the ingredients were blended. The stone walls protected the workers while the explosion shot out across the river where no one could be injured. Even with these precautions, in over 119 years of making black powder, DuPont had 288 explosions and 228 deaths.

Advertisement calendar showing hunting dogs and geese.

Du Pont smokeless powder, 1898. [Calendar.] Popular and Applied Graphic Art Print Filing Series. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

DuPont soon became the leading American manufacturer of black powder, making E.I. du Pont a valuable addition to his family’s business ventures. Black powder was a key part of early American settlement and conflict. Hunting meant survival, since furs from game were used for clothing and trading and meat was used for food. Even bones made useful tools and decorations. Historically, most firearms were muzzleloaders, meaning the powder charge and the projectile were loaded into the gun barrel from the open end, the muzzle. By the 1880s, however, breechloading personal firearms and guns that used smokeless powder became more popular. It was not until the early 1900s that militaries saw widespread use of smokeless weapons.

The issue with black powder is that it produces a large cloud of smoke when ignited. This was not as problematic for sport shooters and hunters, but it was a nightmare for military engagements. Battlefields quickly fogged over with powder clouds, rendering soldiers blind to friend and foe alike. Nevertheless, black powder was the only option. During the War of 1812, DuPont provided about 1 million pounds of black powder to the United States and even rallied their own militia in case Wilmington was attacked by the British. While they did not have to engage in battle, the company’s growing success and reputation meant expansion was needed. E.I. du Pont purchased the land known as Hagley, still along the Brandywine River and the perfect place to build roll mills. The company continued successfully under E.I. until his dying day in 1834.

Following his death, E.I. du Pont’s sons, Alfred, Henry, and Alexis, took over as partners. DuPont was a family business, with these men and their sons continuing the du Pont legacy and expanding the wares offered. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, DuPont saw a boom due to events such as the California Gold Rush, the  construction of Western railroads, the Crimean War, and the American Civil War. During the Civil War, Henry du Pont, a staunch Unionist with many relatives fighting for the North, ensured no gunpowder was sold to the Confederacy or to Confederate sympathizers. Approximately $110,000-worth of black powder was confiscated from DuPont agents during the war, but none was actively sold to the South.

An important member of the du Pont family during the late nineteenth century was Lammot du Pont I, son of Alfred and grandson of E.I. du Pont. Lammot was a chemist and began his career working to develop a cheaper way to make black powder, eventually realizing sodium nitrate was an adequate and cost-effective replacement for saltpeter. As DuPont continued to expand, buying out rival companies, Lammot turned his attention to dynamite production. He understood that this new product would have large consequences for the explosives industry, particularly as mining efforts and railroads pushed into all corners of the nation. In 1880, Lammot founded his own business in New Jersey, the Repauno Chemical Company, specifically to produce high-power explosives like dynamite. When Lammot died in an accidental factory explosion only four years later, DuPont acquired Repauno and incorporated their relative’s vision into their own production line.

The next DuPont invention was a cellulose-based smokeless gunpowder, patented in 1893. Since black powder creates such a fog when ignited, smokeless powder promised to be a big seller to hunters, target shooters, and national military powers looking for wartime advantages. In fact, DuPont became a major distributor of smokeless gunpowder for the allies during World War I, a war defined by intense and confusing trench-laden battlegrounds. DuPont even built a new factory specifically to produce mass quantities of smokeless gunpowder. Located near Nashville, Tennessee, the Old Hickory facility employed roughly 30,000 Americans who lived in the nearby company town. It cost the federal War Department $83 million to construct.

Filling out applications for employment at the Du Pont powder plant near Childersburg, at the employment office in Sylacauga, Alabama. 1941. Photo: Jack Delano, photographer. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

For the rest of the twentieth century, DuPont remained one of the top competitors in chemical-based business, with revenue dipping only during the Great Depression. DuPont chemists made their mark on the world by developing revolutionary substances like the following:

  • Freon (1930) a substance for refrigeration
  • Neoprene (1931) a synthetic rubber
  • Lucite (1936) a clear, acrylic resin used for home furniture
  • Nylon (1937) a synthetic material used to replace silk stockings and in World War II parachute production
  • Teflon (1938) a lubricant and non-stick material
  • Mylar (1952) a synthetic film
  • Dacron (1953) a washable polyester batting and fabric
  • Lycra (1958) a synthetic fiber used in athletic clothes due to high elasticity
  • Kevlar (1973) a high-tensile strength fiber with heat resistant properties

DuPont’s rising power also came from various mergers and acquisitions of other companies. This was beneficial for business, but also brought public outcry against a lack of competitors. Laws such as the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 meant to ensure fair business competition and decrease the chance of monopolies. Few companies in the twentieth century had the funding or the employees to match the materials DuPont invented, let alone market them to consumers. For DuPont, their buying practices resulted in continual antitrust trials during the 1960s and 70s in particular.

After a long and storied history of business success, starting with E.I. du Pont’s vision for a powder works on the Brandywine River and ending with a position as a global power in chemical innovation, DuPont merged with Dow Chemical in 2015. The historic competitors split and merged again within the next two years, a reminder that business is always in flux. Even with the ups and downs DuPont experienced over its 200 years of existence, there is no doubt Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours would be proud of the business legacy ignited by his son’s knowledge, skill, and dissatisfaction with American gunpowder.

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