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

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This is a guest post by 2021 Junior Scholar Hannah Spring Pfeifer. Hannah is pursuing graduate studies in American history and nonprofit management at Villanova University.

along the serene brandywine river in delaware, stand the stone buildings of the eleutherian mills, some little more than ruins, others as they were in the heyday of the 19th century. It was here, in 1802, that Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours founded her gunpowder factory and began the legacy of a powerful and wealthy Franco-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 the 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. i.e. du pont was a young man during the revolution, he worked in his father’s printing press, although his passion and training was the manufacture of black powder and explosives. His father, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, was a nobleman who worked for the monarchy and inspired liberal economic reforms, eventually becoming president of the National Constituent Assembly.

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 other relatives to the United States, where they quickly became important players in the Industrial Revolution. p>

arriving on january 1, 1800, the du pont family headed for new jersey, pierre and victor’s minds reeling with all the potential this new home brought. established du pont de nemours father & sons & New York company, immediately generating ideas for financial success. Pierre even received the support of both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, leaders of the opposing Democratic-Republican and Federalist parties, respectively. meanwhile, i.e. du pont explored the new country. On a hunting trip, he realized that American gunpowder was poor quality but expensive because it was the only option in the sparsely populated wilderness. e.i., with his background in chemistry and powder manufacturing, he presented an idea for a powder mill along the brandywine river to his father and brother. Quality gunpowder was produced primarily by Britain, but Du Ponts, Jefferson, and French financial backers supported E.I., hoping to increase French influence in the United States and strengthen the Franco-American alliance. for $36,000, i.e. 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 simply as DuPont, the company built dams and a run of mills to harness the potential energy of the river’s water, which was controlled by water wheels, turbines, and gear changes. everything in the powder mill, from the roller mills to the machine shops, ran on water, allowing dupont to function independently.

Another benefit of the river was the safety it provided for workers. making gunpowder was dangerous work, because when the ingredients were mixed, they became explosive. the roller mills were pairs of stone buildings, enclosed on three sides and open on the side facing the river. mill workers filled wooden jars with sulfur, coal, and saltpeter; they added a bit of water to reduce the possibility of explosions. the turbines powered the mixing process, during which workers stood behind stone walls because an explosion was more likely to be triggered when the ingredients were mixed. stone walls protected the workers as the blast spread to the other side of the river where no one could be hurt. Even with these precautions, in over 119 years of black powder manufacturing, DuPont had 288 explosions and 228 fatalities.

Dupont soon became America’s leading 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, as the skins from the game were used for clothing and trade and the meat was used for food. even the bones became useful tools and decorations. Historically, most firearms were muzzle-loading, meaning that the powder charge and projectile were loaded into the barrel of the gun from the open end, the muzzle. however, by the 1880s, breech-loading personal firearms and pistols using smokeless powder became more popular. it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the military saw the widespread use of smokeless weapons.

The problem with black powder is that it produces a huge cloud of smoke when ignited. this was not so much of a problem for sport shooters and hunters, but it was a nightmare for military engagements. the battlefields were quickly clouded with clouds of dust, making it difficult for the soldiers to see friend and foe alike. however, black powder was the only option. During the War of 1812, DuPont supplied about 1 million pounds of black powder to the United States and even raised his own militia in case Wilmington was attacked by the British. while they did not have to participate in the battle, the growing success and reputation of the company meant that expansion was needed. i.e. du pont bought the land known as hagley, still along the brandywine river and the perfect place to build roller mills. the company continued successfully under e.i. until the day of his death in 1834.

after 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 products offered. In the mid-19th century, Dupont experienced a boom due to events such as the California Gold Rush, the building 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, made sure no gunpowder was sold to the confederacy or confederate sympathizers. Approximately $110,000 worth of black powder was seized from DuPont agents during the war, but was not actively sold to the South.

an important member of the du pont family in the late 19th century was lammot du pont i, son of alfred and grandson of e.i. dupont. Lammot was a chemist who began his career working to develop a cheaper way to make black powder, eventually realizing that sodium nitrate was a suitable and cost-effective replacement for saltpeter. As DuPont continued to expand, buying up rival companies, Lammot turned his attention to dynamite production. he understood that this new product would have great consequences for the explosives industry, particularly as mining efforts and railroads advanced to all corners of the nation. In 1880, Lammot founded his own business in New Jersey, the Repauno Chemical Company, specifically to produce high explosives such as dynamite. When Lammot was killed in an accidental factory explosion just four years later, DuPont acquired Repauno and incorporated his relative’s vision into his own production line.

Dupont’s next invention was a cellulose-based smokeless powder, patented in 1893. Because black powder creates such a mist when ignited, smokeless powder promised to be a bestseller for hunters, marksmen and the national military powers that sought war. Advantages In fact, Dupont became a major distributor of smokeless powder to the Allies during World War I, a war defined by intense and confusing trench-filled battlefields. Dupont even built a new factory specifically to produce massive amounts of smokeless powder. Located near Nashville, Tennessee, the former Walnut facility employed approximately 30,000 Americans who lived in the company’s nearby town. its construction cost the federal war department 83 million dollars.

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, DuPont remained a major competitor in the chemical-based business, revenue declining only during the Great Depression. dupont chemists left their mark on the world by developing revolutionary substances such as:

  • Freon (1930) a substance for refrigeration
  • neoprene (1931) a synthetic rubber
  • lucite (1936) a transparent acrylic resin used for home furnishings
  • nylon (1937) a synthetic material used to replace silk stockings and in the production of parachutes in World War II
  • Teflon (1938) a lubricating and non-stick material
  • mylar (1952) a synthetic film
  • dacron (1953) a wadding and washable polyester fabric
  • lycra (1958) a synthetic fiber used in sportswear due to its high elasticity
  • kevlar (1973) a high tensile strength fiber with heat resistant properties
  • Dupont’s growing power also came from several mergers and acquisitions of other companies. This was good for business, but it also led to public protests against the lack of competitors. Laws like the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 were intended to ensure fair business competition and lessen the possibility of monopolies. Few companies in the 20th century had the funding or the employees to match the materials invented by DuPont, let alone market them to consumers. For Dupont, its purchasing practices resulted in continued antitrust lawsuits during the 1960s and 1970s in particular.

    after a long history of commercial success, beginning with e.i. du pont’s vision of a powder factory on the brandywine river and ending with a position as a global powerhouse in chemical innovation, dupont merged with dow chemical in 2015. historical competitors parted ways and merged again over the next two years , a reminder that business is always in flux. Even with the ups and downs that DuPont experienced during its 200 years of existence, there is no doubt that Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours would be proud of the commercial legacy started by his son’s knowledge, skill, and dissatisfaction with American gunpowder.

    more information

    • chemical and biological warfare (cbw)
    • hagley museum and library
    • winterthur museum, garden & library
    • further reading

      • delaware: an inventory of historic industrial and engineering sites
      • du pont de nemours, 1739-1817
      • i.e. du pont de nemours and company, a history, 1802-1902
      • French-American colloquium. “French society and culture since the old regime”. 1964.
      • l’enfance et la jeunesse de du pont de nemours
      • Portrait of an Industrial Town in Wilmington, Delaware, 1830-1910 by Carol Hoffecker
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