Spurred by post-World War II spending, the United States experienced massive economic growth in the 1940s and 1950s that changed both the social structure of the nation and its culture. The United States had a per capita income of $1453 while citizens of Great Britain and France who were still reeling from the war earned an average of $900. The United States economy was booming and produced forty-two percent of the world’s income though it was home to only seven percent of its population. As more Americans became financially stable, a new middle class, defined by its affluence, was born. Americans spent less time at work and more time perusing their hobbies.
One hobby that swept the nation was the Paint-By-Numbers craze, turning average Americans into novice artists.
For more information on the economy in the 1950s, check out this video:
For more information on the “unlimited opportunities of the 1950s” check out this video:
Remaking Van Gogh, Monet, and Three Kittens
Max Klein, a chemist and former merchandizing researcher for General Motors, invented and marketed the Paint-By-Numbers kits after he became President of the Palmer Paint Company, a small Detroit paint plant, in November 1951. Allegedly, the idea first took hold when Klein’s head artist, Dan Robbins, recalled stories of Leonardo de Vinci assigning numbered sections of his paintings to his students to complete. Other reports say that concept first formed when Klein began working with the Picture Craft Company, who already sold a “crude art set” that consisted of “a rolled canvas and glad jars containing paint.” Klein’s kits, first sold under the brand name of Craft Master in 1951, were a success.
The images were an immediate hit as Craft Master designers, led by Robbins, created pictures that they felt would be most appealing to the public. Initially, Robbins thought that adults would be interested in painting abstract still life, but Klein quickly rejected the idea. He believed people wanted to paint real pets and landscapes; kits like the Three Kittens sold in great demand. Klein and his team followed consumer demands and from the years of 1951 to 1956, Paint-By-Numbers became a common past-time in many American households.
Americans Painting in Great Numbers
Although the success of Craft Master was short-lived (Klein eventually left Palmer bankrupt in 1956), Paint-By-Numbers flew off department store shelves during their first years of mass production. Americans all over the country wanted their own hand-created copies of Van Gogh and Monet hanging on their living room walls and could get them for a relatively low price at their local drug stores.
In its heyday, everyone was painting by numbers—“bankers, pilots, housewives, nurses, and cabdrivers.” Although many critics in the art world described the kits as lower-class activities, Paint-By-Numbers took the nation by storm and made “artists” out of the average American. The kits became such a sensation that even leaders in the nation’s capital were busy painting by numbers.
The kits were so popular because they were advertised everywhere, especially on television. Television became a prominent feature in American households; they advertised the wonders of painting masterpieces in the comfort of viewers’ own homes. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, the stars of the popular sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, popularized the kits and other aspects of America’s growing consumer culture by advertising them in commercials in 1953.
The Race to Conform and the Advent of Leisure
Why were Painting by Numbers kits so popular? The advent of a new culture of leisure in the early 1950s and the subsequent “do-it-yourself” craze that followed certainly encouraged their popularity. Additionally, Paint-by-Numbers kits fell neatly within the paradigm of conformity perpetuated by the Cold War.
Throughout the Cold War and the resultant anti-communist witch hunt of the early 1950s made some Americans reluctant to do anything that would make them stand out. Experiencing this crisis of individualism, many people tried to conform to what they believed was the typical American lifestyle. Middle class families as represented in shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver, were supposed to own two cars, a television, a laundry machine, and live a life of leisure just like the Nelsons. Such family sitcoms became popular because they represented an ideal middle class of affluence and the model American family. Television was a medium used to entertain and influence people on how to live.
Check out the “do’s” and “don’ts” of “typical” 1950s’ family getting ready for a dinner date:
The typical American family also had more time for leisure. An article from Business Week claimed that “never had so many people had so much time on their hands—with pay—as today in the United States. ” After World War II and the industrial boom that followed, many Americans found themselves with more time for leisurely activities. Although still busy at work, there was time after work, during breaks, during two-day weekends, or on vacations to peruse their interests. Leisure was almost a duty of the middle class; it seemed like people ought to be doing something with all these free hours. Consequently, about one-sixth of the average American’s personal income was spent on leisure activities—people “painted-by-numbers, drank, gardened, watched TV, traveled, listened to music, hunted and fished, read Reader’s Digest condensed books.”
To learn more about the new advent of leisure, check out this 1950s Instructional video:
Despite its initial success, the Paint-By-Numbers craze ended by the mid-fifties due to cultural changes in the United States. Nevertheless, Painting by Numbers was a commercial success in the early years of the 1950s because it provided Americans with another activity they could do themselves while still conforming to the rest of the nation. Everybody wanted to do it themselves because everyone else was doing it themselves. Do-it-yourself activities gave Americans a semblance of individuality during a time when everyone was trying to be like everyone else. Paint-By-Numbers kits were unique because they made the individual feel like a real artist.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for the Cold War