Powder Workers, 1820-1860

The DuPont Company employed hundreds of people at their black powder yards along the Brandywine from 1802-1860. In addition to powdermen, DuPont hired carpenters, stone masons, machinists, blacksmiths, teamsters, bookkeepers, and boarding house operators.

Working at a gunpowder factory was very dangerous. Although approximately 100 people died in explosions from 1805 to 1860, the ample income provided by these jobs encouraged employees to risk their lives. Many DuPont employees spent their entire working lives in the powder yards, using their accumulated income to purchase land and provide for their families. Others used their saving to pursue opportunities elsewhere such as mining or farming in the western states.

Powdermen pose

DuPont created accounts with each employee into which the company deposited pay. Operatives had the option of either withdrawing their earnings or leaving the money on deposit. Monies left in these accounts could be put to such uses as paying boarding charges, taxes, doctor fees, or company store bills. The Company, in effect, acted as a bank for employees and even paid interest on sums over $100.

This section of the exhibit uses the primary sources in the Hagley Library to gain further understanding of the DuPont Company's workforce during the antebellum era. The specific primary sources used are the Petit Ledgers, which were used to keep track of employee accounts. These books provide detailed information on workers' wages and spending. Data from the Petit Ledgers allows researches to gain insight into operatives' economic lives.

Compare Employee Data, 1820-1860

Find out what it was like working in the DuPont Powder Yards

In 1843, Charles McKinney inquired about a position with the DuPont Company to Alfred Victor du Pont. Du Pont, impressed by the letter's "plain business like contents," wasn't able to give McKinney a position but he did send him a detailed reply about the inner works of the company.

This letter represents one of the most concise descriptions of the hierarchy, hiring, and promotion process in the DuPont Company powder yards during the Antebellum era.

Alfred Victor du Pont wrote:

"Our works were begun in 1802. The following rules were then fixed on relative to employment. 1st never to admit a man to work within the mills, until he has been a considerable time at outdoor work with us...

Outdoor work would have been any jobs not associated with the hands-on process of making powder. Outdoor work would have included hauling materials, gathering willow branches to make charcoal, and any other non-skilled labor required to run the yard.

The letter continues:

"...we therefore when help is wanted at the powder mills, take in the hands according to there [sic] date of entering our employment, the hand longest on the place entering the mills when a vacancy occurs, in this way hands have been generally from one to two years working with us previous to being admitted into our mills for we usually have from 50 to 60 outdoor hands.

"The second rule is never to give employment to any person who has worked in other powdermills, this rule has never been waived knowingly but one instance, viz in 1818 when a dreadful explosion left us with only three men, who had sufficient nerve to start the few mills left...

"...the work is all done by common hands and mill men at moderate wages; four men who have been from 15 to 30 years with us act as foremen to our four sets of mills, they merely see that order and directions are faithfully executed, for myself and brothers are strictly speaking the superintendents of the mills, no day going by, without our being personally in them for a number of hours, our four old hands, acting as foreman receive one dollar a day wages with a good house and garden rent free, this being the highest wage we pay to any hands except millwrights and other mechanics employed to repair buildings, etc."