Pre-Civil War Dupont Gunpowder Can with Original Label


Pre-Civil War Dupont Gunpowder Can with Original Label – Early, rare gunpowder tin, retaining its original, paper label that reads: “DuPont Eagle Gun Powder / Duck Shooting / Wilmington Delaware”. Approximately 5.25 inches tall x 3 inches in diameter, the can also retains virtually all of its original blue paper covering and lid; the bottom of the can exhibits a considerable amount of its original japanning; affixed to both sides of the can is most of the original, cotton carrying strap, that has broken in the ensuing years since original manufacture. The date of manufacture is most likely between 1840 and 1850. Most of these tins were simply discarded after use. The DuPont Company was established in 1802 in Wilmington, Delaware, and for many years, only manufactured gunpowder. During wartime, the United States Government was a major customer. The company marketed to hunters during peacetime. DuPont moved the focus of their business to chemical innovations in the early 20th century. The slogan for the Eagle brand powder was: “Matchless for its power, strong, swift and fatal, as the bird it bore.” At a time when advertising was not brand conscious, the Eagle was one of the first used.

Gunpowder Industry

By Kim Burdick

The Mid-Atlantic gunpowder industry flourished in the nineteenth century along the Brandywine River in Delaware and spread into Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and other states. Long synonymous with the name duPont, the industry began in 1802 when Eleuthère Irénée duPont (1771–1834), a French refugee and former student of famous chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94), began manufacturing gunpowder along the banks of the Brandywine.

A mill on the Brandywine River was used to grind gunpowder. Its construction was personally supervised by Eleuthère Irénée duPont, who began manufacturing gunpowder there in 1802.

Using charcoal made from local willow trees, sulfur, saltpeter shipped in on the Delaware River, and water power controlled by French water wheels and turbines, duPont’s mill increased production rapidly, making and selling 39,000 pounds of gun powder in 1804 and triple that amount the next year. During the War of 1812, sales jumped when the United States government bought powder from DuPont. With the proceeds, the company acquired additional land for industrial use at a site on the Brandywine known as Hagley, a name of English origins bestowed by a former owner. With the expansion into the Hagley Yards, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company was on its way to becoming one of the world’s largest producers of explosives.

Making gunpowder was perilous work for the duPonts and their workers, who lived in communities near the mill. In the most dangerous part of the process, ingredients were mixed wet, then ground down to a paste called “serpentine,” which was pushed through a mesh to form granules. These granules were allowed to dry, pressed into blocks, and passed through a mill twice to produce a fine powder. Safety rules were strict. To guard against igniting the powder, machinists’ whale oil lamps were encased in glass, powdermen’s boots were held together with wooden pegs, and the cart-horses’ hooves were encased in leather. On New Year’s Day 1811, the mill posted a notice stating, “All kind of play or disorderly fun is prohibited.”

Despite precautions, in June 1815, the pounding mill exploded, and eight workmen died. In 1818, a more massive explosion, attributed to a foreman’s drinking, destroyed five mill buildings, killed thirty-six workers and injured E.I.’s wife, Sophie (1775–1828). Alcohol was then banned from the work site and E.I. and Sophie’s son, Alfred Victor duPont (1798-1856), worked closely with powdermen to rebuild the mill. He became head of the company in 1837, succeeded after his retirement in 1850 by his brother, Henry duPont (1812-89). Their younger brother, Alexis I. (1816-57), died along with five others while trying to extinguish another fire at the mill in 1857.

Popular With Sportsmen

Demand for gunpowder continued after the War of 1812 as DuPont gunpowder became popular with sportsmen, and an energetic period of national development between 1830 and 1860 increased the need for gunpowder to blast open coal mines and build roads, canals, and railroads. The duPonts responded with innovation and expansion. In 1857, Lammot duPont (1831-84)–the son of Alfred Victor duPont— developed “B” blasting powder with a more powerful blast than traditional black powder by substituting sodium nitrate for potassium nitrate. In 1859, the company purchased the Wapwallopen powder factory outside Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for its manufacture. Further black powder research yielded “Mammoth Powder” for use with heavy artillery.

During the Civil War, the Brandywine powder mill produced nearly one-third of the Union’s requirements. As a result of accelerated wartime production, the packing room exploded on February 26, 1863, destroying 10,000 pounds of powder and killing thirteen men. Two more explosions occurred that year, killing forty more.