Video: A DuPont Lesson in Petrochemistry, 1957

Video of the Month
Monday, May 21, 2018

This month’s video of the month is a filmed demonstration produced by the DuPont Company in 1957. In the film, a presenter delivers a version of the “Magic Barrel,” a lesson on the many products that could be derived from oil and natural gas.

The presentation was developed by DuPont's Petroleum Chemicals Division and seen by thousands of people around the world during the mid-1950s. The "Magic Barrel" was designed, according to DuPont, to “familiarize people with the wonder world of petrochemistry, in which crude oil and natural gas are transmuted into thousands of useful organic compounds.”

An article in the October 1954 edition of DuPont Magazine offers insight into its distribution and audience:   

Take an oil drum and fill it with some samples of the thousands of products derived from oil and natural gas. Then add some showman like patter and demonstrations and you have the highly successful Magic Barrel lecture developed by DuPont to use by the oil industry which this month celebrates its 7th annual Oil Progress Week.

In the past year the Magic Barrel has been rolled out for some 300,000 members of luncheon clubs, chamber of commerces, and other civic groups, and for uncounted millions on about 50 television shows. In the Far North, radio listeners have heard the petrochemicals story on Alaska's Midnight Sun network. This fall, pupils in New York City's 230 junior and senior high schools will learn, via the Barrel, how much more oil does than simply power their dads' automobiles and heat their homes.

Six hundred oil company employees have been trained by Du Pont to deliver the educational talk. These, in turn, have taught others. A group of 40 speakers is being readied to handle the New York school assignment alone.

One hundred and fifty Magic Barrels are now in circulation, and another hundred are expected to be made up as the demand increases. 

Read the full article here  

The filmed version of the Magic Barrel in Hagley’s collection had a specific purpose revealed at the conclusion of the film. The unidentified presenter closes his lecture with a wish of success to “friends in Greece” who were to present the "Magic Barrel" at the “Salonika Fair.” A 1957 article in the Morning News from Wilmington, Delaware provides additional context:

William A. Hart, president of the Advertising Research Foundation, will assist the United States Dept of Commerce in presenting the Magic Barrel at the International Trade Fair at Salonika, Greece, Sept 1-22.

Mr. Hart, who retired as director of Dupont’ Advertising Department in 1955, is donating his services to the U.S. Department of of Commerce and will organize the Magic Barrel exhibit and train the Greek demonstrators.

Articles from the mid-1950s in the Morning News report DuPont employees traveling to Europe, Japan, and the Middle-East to deliver the "Magic Barrel." 

“Magic Barrel to Tour Europe,” Morning News (Wilmington, DE), 6 October 1954
“Dupont Company to Show ‘Magic Barrel’ in Japan,” Morning News (Wilmington, DE), 19 April 1957

Kevin J. Martin is the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Audiovisual and Digital Collections  at Hagley Museum and Library.