On This Day in 1938: Jefferson Tribute Turns Infomercial . . . "through chemistry"

Well, I’ve only been back some forty-eight hours, but the sunny interlude in Cornwall, so poorly captured by my camera, already seems a distant memory. It was Thomas Jefferson—born on this day, 13 April, in 1743—who argued that travelling makes “men wiser, but less happy.” Is this true? “When men of sober age travel,” Jefferson claimed, they may gather useful knowledge, but “are subject ever after to recollections mixed with regret; their affections are weakened by being extended over more objects; and they learn new habits which cannot be gratified when they return home.” Should we limit our exposure to the world by concentrating on what is closest or by selecting a specific if narrow field of inquiry whose soil we continue to till skilfully to reap a rich harvest?

My field, of course, is so-called old-time radio, and I seem to take the fruits of my research along with me or take soil samples wherever I travel. Jefferson would not have approved of my preoccupation with American radio drama and with western popular culture in general, since he held storytelling in rather low esteem:

A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain an unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.

Now, in the 20th century, it was beginning to become clear that the “real businesses of life,” as interpreted by Americans, was big business: producing goods, advertising them, generating sales and making profits. So, when Jefferson was being celebrated some 195 years after his birth, his life, too, was turned into a promotional opportunity. The opportunist, in this case, was the du Pont company, who, in order to improve their image as a wartime profiteer, came up with the slogan “Better living through chemistry” and sponsored a series of historical radio dramas called Cavalcade of America. It is a fascinating merger of history, entertainment, and advertising I’ve explored in my dissertation and previously discussed here on several occasions.

On this day in 1938, Jefferson’s connections to the du Pont family were thoroughly exploited to suggest that, like Jefferson—the founder of the University of Virginia—the du Pont Company was chiefly interested in educating America, rather than amassing riches from the manufacture of gunpowder.

In “Thomas Jefferson, Pioneer in Education,” the future US President meets Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours (1739-1817), a French economist whose son, Eleuthère Irénée turned to gunpower manufacture during the volatile and dangerous days of the French Revolution. No mention is made of the source of the du Pont fortune, leaving listeners with the impression that the du Pont clan were a group of benevolent scholars who admired the United States chiefly for its advancements in education.

Children in the United States, the old Monsieur du Pont told Jefferson in the Cavalcade‘s version of history, “are encouraged to read and comment. Controversy has developed argumentation and given room for the exercise of logic. This country has a large proportion of moderately well-informed men. But that does not mean that the general education cannot be improved. And if improvement is a possibility, it is a duty.”

To underscore this message, a great-great grandson of papa du Pont seizes the microphone for a curtain call, in which it is suggested that his family played a substantial role in American education. Cited for “good taste in advertising,” the Cavalcade program, much reviled by erstwhile contributors like the aforementioned Arthur Miller, seems to have counted on the “moderately well-informed” and done its share to remove all traces of “controversy” and “argumentation” from the cleverly crafted infomercials it passed off as history lessons. Was this “better re-living through chemistry”?

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