Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Lincoln's Labels Author Jim Schmidt Donates 1890 Letter to Hagley Museum and Library!

Well, it's the least I could do, right?! The Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware, is the steward of an important collection of manuscripts, photographs, books, and pamphlets documenting the history of American business and technology, especially the du Pont family and corporate papers.

Their kind, expert, and enthusiastic assistance was critical to my ability to craft a chapter about the important and interesting role of the du Pont gunpowder works during the American Civil War for my recently published book, Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2008).

Although the letter from collection is from October 1890, it reflects on a sad du Pont tradition that dates to the origin of the works, accelerated during the Civil War, and continued many years after: explosions. The text of the letter follows:

Wilmington, Del
October 10, 1890

J.N. Robson, Esq.
Charleston, SC

Dear Mr. Robson:

We are just in receipt of your kind letter of the 8th inst. extending your expression of sympathy in the calamity which befell us on Thursday. As you say, it is hard for Mrs. Henry Du Pont to be obliged to leave her old homestead. There was a great deal of damage done and most unfortunately several were killed; we all escaped uninjured. Thank you again for your sympathy. we remain,

Yours Truly,

E. I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co.

The letter refers to a terrific explosion that occurred in early October 1890 at the works...reports of the explosion were carried by newspapers across the nation (I've included an excerpt from the Eau Claire, Wisconsin's Weekly Free Press, October 9, 1890). As I mentioned above, explosions were a constant danger at any powder works. Here is an excerpt from Lincoln's Labels that describes the threat during the Civil War:

Accidents had happened at the du Pont powder works about every fourteen months on average since their inception. The first had occurred on August 18, 1807; it broke windows in founder Irenee du Pont's home but caused no deaths. The first fatal accident, on june 8, 1815, claimed nine lives and caused $20,000 in damage. The du Pont family was not immune: the founder's son Alexis was killed in an 1857 explosion.

The incidents made a great impression on Lammot du Pont; as a teen he wrote his brother: "This morning just as I got out of bed I saw a flash of light and then a loud explosion. I dressed as soon as I could and ran down to the refinery...There were two men killed, entirely blown to pieces, there were 4200 pounds of powder in the mill, all finished ready to pack, so you may know it made a pretty good crack...Every window or door that was shut was burst open in our house."

More than ten explosions occurred at the du Pont mills during the Civil War - an average of one
about every five months. The first explosion, in October 1861, caused no fatalities but did level a number of buildings. An explosion a month later claimed the lives of three men. Others that followed killed nearly forty more workmen.

Newspapers across the country carried bulletins of the wartime explosions; of one incident, Gettysburg's
Adams Sentinel reported that "large pieces of timber and barrels were thrown by the force of the explosion entirely across the Brandywine creek, and for a great distance evidences of the disaster were visible." Of another, an Iowa paper reported with just amazement that a correspondent distinctly heard the explosion of the du pont powder mills at his residence [in Clifford, Pennsylvania]; the distance...he says, is 135 miles."

None of the explosions could be categorically attributed to saboteurs; certainly the accelerated pace of production and the inexperience of newly-hired hands contributed to the accidents, and any clues would be lost in the destruction. Still, it makes one wonder whether Rebel saboteurs may have indeed been successful in attempts to damage the mills.

You can learn more about the important and interesting rol eof the du Pont powder works - and family - in the Civil War by reading Lincoln's Labels!

In any event it is my pleasure to donate the 1890 letter to the Hagley Museum and Library; it is the very best home for it and a small - but sincere - token of appreciation for all the help they provided.

1 comment:

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