1910 Artificial Leather
Fabrikoid was one of DuPont’s first non-explosives products. Produced by coating fabric with nitrocellulose and marketed as artificial leather, Fabrikoid was widely used in upholstery, luggage and bookbindings during the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Fabrikoid became the preferred material for automobile convertible tops and seat covers.
Fabrikoid company factory floor, 1910
Fabrikoid test area, 1910
As DuPont diversified out of explosives it sought other applications for its nitrocellulose expertise. The Fabrikoid Company, of Newburgh, N.Y., had already developed a textile coating process, and in 1910 DuPont purchased the company for $1.2 million. It soon became evident that the facilities were unsatisfactory, however, and within a few years DuPont’s chemists had substantially improved the product and its production. The manufacture of DuPont Fabrikoid began with a nitrocellulose coating known as pyroxylin. The pyroxylin was colored with pigments suspended in castor oil, producing a soft and pliable product. A coating machine applied this substance to a base fabric, and the result was then embossed and finished. In the 1920s and 1930s, automobile manufacturers used Fabrikoid in convertible tops and seat covers, but by the 1940s new, more durable vinyl-coated fabrics overtook the market.
In his 60-year career with DuPont, Irénée du Pont (1876-1963) witnessed the company’s transition from the nation’s largest powder producer to one of the world’s leading chemical firms. His father, Lammot du Pont, had begun manufacturing dynamite at the Repauno works in New Jersey and was killed there in an 1884 explosion. Irénée followed his older brother, Pierre, to MIT and graduated in 1897, earning a master’s degree the following year. He then joined Fenn’s Manufacturing Contracting Company, owned by William H. Fenn, a former MIT roommate of Pierre. After cousins Alfred, T. Coleman and Pierre bought DuPont in 1902, Irénée returned to Wilmington to assist Fenn’s company in the construction of DuPont’s new headquarters.
Irénée was soon hired by DuPont’s new management to appraise the many businesses the company was then purchasing. In 1904 he became head of the Black Powder Department’s Engineering Division and was appointed to the company’s Board of Directors. The next year he moved to the Treasurer’s Department and became chairman of the company’s Operative Committee. After being named head of the Development Department in 1908, Irénée anticipated a decline in military demand for guncotton and explored new uses for its raw material, nitrocellulose. In 1910 he convinced DuPont to purchase the Fabrikoid Company, a maker of nitrocellulose-based artificial leather. Over the next decade, Irénée served in a number of senior management positions before succeeding Pierre as company president in 1919. During his six years as president, Irénée oversaw a major reorganization at DuPont in which the Executive Committee delegated daily management to individual departments. Irénée also served on the Finance Committee and the Board of Directors of General Motors (GM) between 1921 and 1924, when Pierre was active in the reorganization of GM. Irénée remained active on DuPont's Board of Directors until his retirement in 1958.