Letting Dynamite Do It: Du Pont’s Motion Pictures, 1910-1930

In the early 20th century, large corporations began to use advertising to build brand awareness. Public relations experts sought to burnish the image of corporations using newspaper and magazine advertising, exhibits at expos, and publicity stunts. However, many corporations had trouble bringing their messages into moving picture theaters. Theater exhibitor skepticism, audience resistance, and difficulties with film distribution kept advertisers out of theaters. Rather than abandon the cinema, corporations worked with the U.S. government, educators, and civic groups to distribute and screen their films. School auditoriums, community centers, and temporary outdoor theaters became venues for films that promoted brands and products of large corporations. Based on research at the Hagley Museum and Library and the National Archives and Records Administration, this paper documents how one corporation— E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company—used film to promote its leading product: dynamite. Sales agents incorporated what is widely believed to be one of the first advertising films, du Pont’s Farming With Dynamite (1910), into a multimedia spectacle. Interested individuals could travel to a nearby farm to watch the agent demonstrate dynamite’s efficacy in clearing fields or view a film on the subject at the (rented) theater in town. By the 1920s, du Pont had built up a program of dynamite films that became so firmly attached to the company’s identity that it withdrew them from circulation in the early 1930s when it sought to broaden its reputation. Drawing from archival research, digitized newspapers, and extant films—including du Pont’s How Jimmy Won the Game (1928)—I argue that corporate collaboration with governments, civic groups, and other businesses led to the development of nonfiction film genres, including educational film and documentary, and set a pattern for how corporations used media even when their offerings were not valued by the commercial marketplace.