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Paint By Number - a cultural phenomenon

When I was a child growing up in the 1950's one of my prized gifts was a Paint By Number kit given to me one Christmas.  I cannot recall the actual image but I distinctly remember the pleasure of holding a tiny paint brush in my hand and smearing a coloured substance from a small, numbered, plastic pot onto a corresponding numbered space, on a little canvas board.  I do not think I stayed in the carefully defined spaces, edged with fine contour lines, but I did end up with some form of a painted image.  This was my introduction to painting.

Painting by numbers captured a growing niche in the urbanization of  working middle class America during the early 1950's.  Postwar disposal incomes had increased.  People were in a position to participate in hobbies which could fill their increased leisure time in the new consumer society.

Dan Robbins, a commercial artist with the Palmer Paint Company in Detroit was approached by Max Klein, the company's CEO in the late 1940's, to come up with a novel plan that would increase the numbers of paint sales for the company.  Robbins took up Klein's challenge.

Robbins happened to remember that long before the postwar 1950's sometime during the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci  would sketch out numbered patterns so that his apprentices and students could fill in the spaces with corresponding colours to create his painting backgrounds on stretched canvases.

After a number of failed attempts and prototypes, Robbins finally stumbled onto images that Klein felt the buying public would find appealing - landscapes and animals.  When the kits were initially introduced to the public the sales were slow.  However, with the marketing scheme and the solid belief in their product, Klein and Robbins solicited the Macy Department's toy buyer to demonstrate their new Paint By Number kits of innocuous images.

The marketing scheme worked.  The kits reached a buying frenzy.  Even President Dwight Eisenhower got caught up in the craze.  In 1954 he began distributing the popular kits to senior governmental officials and White House visitors.  The White House then exhibited completed images in the West Wing  corridor. 


Sales peaked by 1955 and over twelve million kits had sold under the Craft Master banner.  Hobbyists hung their newly minted and often framed masterpieces  on their walls.   They felt a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride.  They could produce art.  They could paint a picture.  The buying public who normally would not buy an original work could boast that they had a "real painting" in their home.  The buying public had become what the top of the Craft Master packaging purported: "Every  man a Rembrandt."

Within a few years the popularity of the Paint By Number  flooded the market, sales dropped drastically and Klein sold his company.

Critics of this new form of decorative craft lobbed vile comments towards the hobbyists and suggested they were part of a "mindless conformity gripping 1950's America." What the critics failed to recognize is that the Paint By Number kit  introduced middle America to a cultural phenomenon, an accessible form of painting with a paint brush  (even though they had to stay inside the lines) when indeed many hobbyists might never have had the opportunity to pick up a paint brush before or after in their lives.    

This 1950's paint by numbers phenomenon, gleaned from the great Da Vinci, has similar elements to the hugely popular "paint nights" that now is sweeping many North American urban centers.  An instructor stands in front of a group of eager participants.  All participants with paint brush in hand wait to be told what subject to paint and what colours to choose.  Chances are everyone will leave with the same crudely painted image, smiles on their faces and a feeling of accomplishment.  They will proudly mount their newly minted images in their homes, just as the Paint By Number "artists" had done fifty years before.