Blood Relations (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
Although the Du Pont Company is only twenty-four years younger than the United States and is the largest chemical company in the world and still growing in size, the inside details of the previously family owned and operated corporation have been jealously guarded until recently, when the family opened its Eleutherian Mills Historical Library at Greenville, Wilmington, Delaware, to scholars. In this account of the du Pont family, author Leonard Mosley not only has had access to the family’s library but also to the photographic memories of some anonymous family members who have read some of the deleted documents pertaining to the two most recently deceased family members. Thus, Mosley’s twentieth nonfiction book should be the final authority on the subject until the requisite fifty years have elapsed when the remaining sections of correspondence will be released.
While Mosley’s book mainly concentrates on the more recent history of the family, he does fill in the details of the origin and development of the company as well as the more notorious family scandals and squabbles. More than most families who can trace their roots back two hundred years, the du Ponts have had many illustrious and exciting ancestors of whom they can boast, and Mosley presents them to the reader in as much detail as is possible in a work of this nature.
The Du Pont Company began in 1801, founded by Irénée du Pont as a small gunpowder manufacturing factory on the Brandywine River, in Wilmington, Delaware. Irénée, the son of Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, former inspector general of commerce under King Louis XVI of France who brought his family to the United States in 1799, had learned the gunpowder manufacturing process from Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier in France. By 1807, gunpowder sales had reached forty-three thousand dollars, but business was precarious because of late-paying customers and bank loans which had to be paid on time. Prosperity came with the War of 1812, and the various wars since that time until World War II have kept the family-held company financially solvent and profitable despite occasional periods of inept management. Beginning in the 1930’s, the company gradually changed directions and concentrated more on what had previously been a minor aspect of the company, the research and development of chemical products, so that today, with its gunpowder division accounting for only two percent of the company’s activities, its success is no longer dependent upon warfare, and it was able to survive its disastrous one-hundred-fifty-million-dollar campaign to replace shoe leather with its artificial corfam in 1966.
The present book, however, concentrates more on the lives of the family members than on the vicissitudes of the company itself. The entire venture into chemical diversification is curtly treated in a few of the later chapters. Company business is dealt with largely in connection with Mosley’s treatment of the family members, and his main concern is with the more recent family history, especially with Pierre Samuel (P. S.) and Alfred I. du Pont.
In its long history, the Du Pont Company has had many heroes and many incompetents at or near its helm. Throughout, there were the inevitable internecine struggles for power in the company besides the family disagreements over life-styles and choice of marriage partners. From the very beginning, family members were closely involved with great figures of the times. One early family hero was Lammot (great-grandson of the original Pierre Samuel) who managed personally to smuggle gunpowder to Russia in the Crimean War. He was called upon by President Lincoln to buy two thousand tons of Indian saltpeter from England for the Civil War in 1862. Lammot’s real interest was in chemistry, and he developed Mammoth Powder, a larger grained, slower burning powder with more propulsive force, which helped the Monitor sink the Merrimack. The company’s success during the Civil War made it the “first powder maker to the nation,” and, of course, very prosperous. Lammot also involved the company in Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite against the judgment of the company’s autocratic president General Henry du Pont. Because of their rivalry, Lammot never rose to lead the company before his untimely death in an explosion in 1884. As would be expected, there were many accidental deaths by explosion in the family, as many of the members actively participated in the manufacturing process as well as in experimental research of a hazardous nature.
The du Ponts were extremely clannish, usually marrying near or distant relatives, breaking off engagements when the family disapproved, and passing on company jobs to favored relatives. Thomas Coleman du Pont (Coleman) broke off his romance with the daughter of a coal-mine foreman because of family opposition, and the girl later achieved fame in the motion picture industry as the actress Lillian Gish. Alfred I. du Pont, one of the most colorful figures of the entire family, was ostracized from the mainstream of the family partly because of his divorce from Bessie Gardner, a remote cousin, and his subsequent remarriage.
Alfred’s life reads more like fiction than reality. While atttending M. I. T. he was usually short of funds supplied by his Uncle Fred (his father had been another company casualty at an early age). To earn money, he fought the aging ex-heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan. Taking a liking to the youth and admiring his pugilistic skills, Sullivan “carried” Alfred for five rounds, allowing him to win fifty dollars. The two men formed a lifelong friendship as Alfred continued earning money by professional fighting. Although Alfred dropped out of M. I. T., he took music lessons and learned to master the violin, piano, clarinet, and cornet, and organized his own band. He...
(The entire section is 2394 words.)
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