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Monday, 16 April 2018 17:28

In Reverse: Duke, Dunk and DuPont---Tales from the 1930s

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Before it was known for its automotive refinish materials and a multitude of other diverse products, DuPont’s main product was gunpowder.  In April 1801 (yes, that’s 1801, not long after the American Revolutionary War), the DuPont company was born.  In the summer of 1803, its gunpowder factories in America were ready.  E.I. DuPont himself sent word to President Thomas Jefferson that his company stood ready to provide gunpowder to the U.S. military as needed.  The company called its product “Brandywine Powder.”   

In the ensuing years, DuPont was a major supplier of gunpowder for the U.S. military as well as other purposes.  Through the War of 1812, WWI and other skirmishes, DuPont was there to help defend America.  

But in December 1934, things turned ugly.  DuPont was called before the U.S. Senate Munitions Investigating Committee to answer allegations of profiteering during WWI.  Senator Gerald Nye, a Republican from North Dakota, chaired the committee.  

Ironically, between the end of WWI and 1935, DuPont had changed its product mix from 97 percent explosives to 95 percent non-explosives with a growing number of products aimed directly at consumers.  DuPont had been, in a word, “burned” during WWI.  They ramped up gunpowder production to a phenomenal level, expecting the war to last longer than it did.  When it didn’t, DuPont executives decided they had better diversify.  

But the newspaper headlines didn’t see that part of DuPont’s business, and the company was viewed as a “merchant of death”---a public relations nightmare.  Although some members of DuPont’s upper management still did not see the value in a positive corporate image, others did, and it was decided that something had to be done.  

In 1926, DuPont got into the sprayable lacquer business for auto refinishers with its Duco brand, followed by Dulux alkyd resin enamel and Lucite Acrylic lacquer.  In early 1935, a positive public relations campaign was launched.  One of the main initiatives was an entertainment program developed and sponsored by DuPont called Cavalcade of America.  It started as a radio show and eventually went to television in 1952, lasting until 1957.  The show advertised DuPont non-explosive, consumer-oriented products and made a point to promote ingenuity and patriotism.  Out of this PR campaign came the now-familiar motto, “Better Things for Better Living---Through Chemistry.”  But despite all the positive messages and slogans, perhaps nothing did more to rejuvenate DuPont’s image than the development of nylon hosiery for women.

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