In his book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, Steven Gelber points out that prior to 1950 less than one-third of American homeowners painted their own houses. During the 1950s, however, that figure rose to eighty percent. How can this shift be explained?
In part, the answer lies with how the paint industry dealt with consumers. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, for instance, DuPont actively sought to steer homeowners toward its authorized paint dealers and contractors. An innovative trade catalog that worked toward this end is located in the Imprints Collection at the Hagley Museum and Library. The 1941 DuPont Color Selector: Dedicated to Home Owners, Who Will Find It Helpful in Choosing Colors that Keep a Home Looking Its Best by Their Painting and Decorating Contractor is a hardcover trade catalog for showroom use that contains an instructional booklet, almost 150 full-page paint color samples, and an innovative feature that distinguishes the Du Pont Color Selector from traditional paint sample books: overlays.
In a novel effort to assist consumers in choosing paint colors and to explain the wide range of available finish options, the DuPont Color Selector contains seventeen images of representative interior and exterior house photographs printed on cellophane with the areas intended for house paint left translucent. Called overlays, the exclusive tool integrated into the DuPont Color Selector allows users to simulate interior and exterior color change effortlessly by placing the overlays atop color samples; according to the DuPont Color Selector introduction, the overlays show “how almost any room in the house will look when painted.” Mixing and matching overlays with the available color options allows users to create up to 1,200 different interior paint schemes and up to 1,360 different exterior paint schemes.
The DuPont Color Selector was a new tool for dealers to cultivate consumption habits. It also highlighted technological innovation in the materials from which the book was constructed, since cellophane was still a relatively new DuPont product. And as an interactive showroom tool that relied upon staff assistance, the DuPont Color Selector was intended to keep homeowners engaged with authorized dealers and contractors while in the process of planning to paint their homes. After all, the DuPont Color Selector encouraged consumers to only simulate painting by using its overlays; the real, messy work was best left to the professionals.
A promotional leaflet published by DuPont and distributed to paint dealers and contractors in 1941 reveals the company’s sentiment regarding the consumer experience. The leaflet touts both the DuPont Color Selector and a trade film produced by the company called “Are We Painters,” which cautions the general public against using anyone other than a professional paint contractor to paint their house. Prior to the 1950s, the general public received mixed signals; while popular magazines and books instructed homeowners on the ease of painting their own houses, DuPont and other paint companies and professional trade organizations discouraged homeowners from completing home painting projects.
E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. The DuPont Color Selector: Dedicated to Home Owners, Who Will Find it Helpful in Choosing Colors That Keep a Home Looking its Best by Their Painting and Decorating Contractor. Wilmington, Del.: E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, 1940.
Gelber, Steven M. Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. View item on Google Books
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By Alessandra Wood, University of Delaware