Meeting the Miner’s Friend

A 19th-century advertisement for dynamite by the Giant Powder Company. (CHF Collections)

A 19th-century advertisement for dynamite by the Giant Powder Company. (CHF Collections)

Advertising art offers a far more interesting glimpse into the past than so-called high art. Such art must be quickly comprehensible to its audience and make an immediate impact. These rules apply even when the object being advertised makes its own bang. Take a close look at this 19th-century ad for the Giant Powder Company, the first venture to commercially market Alfred Nobel’s new explosive dynamite in the United States.

Nitroglycerin is a powerful but unpredictable explosive. Dynamite, essentially a stick of a puttylike substance (clay mixed with nitroglycerin) topped with a mercury fulminate blasting cap, stabilized the nitroglycerin within it. Nobel took out a patent for his blasting cap in 1867 and licensed his new invention to San Francisco native Julius Bandmann, who had seen and been impressed by dynamite’s blasting of a railway tunnel. Bandmann’s company, Giant Powder, was incorporated in 1867 and began producing dynamite the next year.

The “Miner's Friend” advertisements promoted dynamite as an everyday tool for shifting large amounts of soil or rock. The visual language here is primarily grounded in realism. Although the trademark depicts a giant, he isn’t green or bigger than a house. He is the “Miner’s Friend,” affably grasping the worker’s hand. He is a nice giant, well scrubbed and with a most becoming turned-up moustache. For clothing he wears the skin of a grizzly bear, and in a bit of wicked fun on the artist’s part the bear’s head doubles as a codpiece.

The Giant is the visual embodiment of a product—in this case a line of explosives—that will surely make the miner’s life easier. Note how the relieved miner, hat in hand, has dropped his pickax to the ground. Who needs pickaxes when the Giant will provide black powder, dynamite, blasting caps, and whatever else is needed to get that ore. Even the hardest-headed miner could appreciate the savings in time and effort.

Although the Giant is the miner’s friend, the accompanying text hastens to remind us that he is also the friend of railroad builders and farmers who might wish to blast a tunnel through rock, widen the banks of an irrigation ditch, or remove a stubborn tree stump.

What’s more, a rather ostentatious gold medallion that does its best to upstage the central image reminds potential customers that the Giant Powder Company “received the only medal for high explosives ever awarded by the Mechanics Institute.” What more could any miner ask for?