Paint by Number a Retrospect

The 1950s brought not only a new decade – but a new era- and a completely new time… free time. It was like postwar America took one big, collective sigh of relief and Uncle Sam sat down with his feet up to rest a bit. And all of a sudden regular old Americans could rest a bit too. Writing in Life magazine in the late 1950s, cultural critic Russell Lynes set out to describe … “new leisure.”

New leisure was something that everyone could have a part of, and wealth was no longer based on your bank account, but your weekend plans. A mass culture based on consumerism roamed our stores and flipped through our catalogs. And every company woke up prepared to sell to the exciting new market with time to kill. And the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit, Michigan followed suit and introduced the first paint by number kits. Despite a few early hiccups, as far as the new consumerism was concerned, the paint by number was a true hit out of the park.

Muck like Spinniest Orange is now offering a new twist on paint by number, the Palmer Paint Company introduced the first paint by number kits at the New York Toy Show in 1951 making “Craft Master” its premium line of paint by number kits. Despite some who didn’t see the creativity contained within the boxed sets, and one large manufacturing mistake, Palmer Paint Company believed in its idea and pressed on. Then in November 1950, Palmer Paint Co. convinced the Macy’s toy buyer to let them perform demonstrations of their Craft Master kits in their store during the New York Toy Show by making the deal that they would only have to pay for the sets that sold, and that all unsold sets could be returned free of charge. But all along Palmer Paint knew they wouldn’t have to buy any sets back. They had already passed out money and instructed friends and family to make sure Macy’s was left with no Craft Master paint by number sets. In OUTRة Magazine Robbins said: “It doesn’t exactly sound kosher, but we knew paint by numbers was a winner and wanted to do whatever it took to convince Macy’s and everybody else that it was.”

Kosher or not, the marketing move seemed to give the kits the kick they needed, and then when an amateur painter in San Francisco entered a 1952 art contest and won third prize, the paint by number seemingly solidified its place in art, and in history and became the tipping point of its popularity. “They became so popular that The White House even hung paint by number paintings by J. Edgar Hoover, Nelson Rockefeller and others in a West Wing corridor along with other artists’ original works.”

But in the end, it was the regular American that made the paint by number kit so iconic. Because, as a conversation about Van Gogh turns to one of paint by numbers in the movie Mona Lisa, with the paint by number kit, everyone could now be Van Gogh.

About Paint by Numbers

Connie Baker: We have the calendar.

Katherine Watson: There you go. With the ability to reproduce art, it is available to the masses. No one needs to own a van Gogh original, they can paint their own. Van Gogh in a box, ladies! The newest form of mass-distributed art; painting by numbers.

Connie Baker: [reading from the box] “Now everyone can be a van, Gogh. It’s so easy. Just follow the simple instructions and in minutes, you’re on your way to being an artist.”

Giselle Levy: Van Gogh by numbers?

Katherine Watson: Ironic, isn’t it? Look at what we have done to the man who refused to conform his ideas to popular taste. Who refused to compromise his integrity. We have put him in a tiny box and asked you to copy him.

And that was the power that was wrapped up in a box called the paint by numbers.

By 1954, Palmer sold nearly twelve million paint by number kits, was producing 50,000 kits per day, and had as many as 30 competitors making their version of paint by numbers. Spinniest Orange is the only web application that allows you to convert and print paint by number with your photos instantly.


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