The 1941 DuPont Color Selector

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

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?

The Du Pont Color Selector, c1940. Hagley Imprints Department, TP937.D92 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.

The DuPont Color Selector, Cape Cod Style Exterior Overlay shown atop blue exterior paint and orange shutter paint. Hagley Imprints Department, TP937.D92 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.

Meet the Stars of "Are We Painters." Front page of the DuPont promotional leaflet, 1941. Hagley Manuscripts and Archives, Acc. 1803, DuPont Company Advertising Department Records, oversize box 68.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.

At This Painter Meeting...  Back page of the DuPont promotional leaflet, 1941. Hagley Manuscripts and Archives, Acc. 1803, DuPont Company Advertising Department Records, oversize box 68But the tide was irreversible. According to Steven Gelber, the anthropologist Margaret Mead observed in 1957 that “The do-it-yourself movement is not just a hobby. It is often a pleasant and meaningful contribution to family life.” Gelber goes on to associate the do-it-yourself movement with post World War II family bonding and the idea of the house as a hobby. He cites painting as one of the most popular do-it-yourself projects, due to easy access to materials and a relatively simple concept. Industry resistance toward the do-it-yourself painter vanished as the majority of homeowners claimed painting as their own task. The explosion of the 1950s do-it-yourself movement left the authorized paint contractor as an employee for the wealthy, while middle-class Americans grabbed brushes and rollers, determined to paint their own walls.



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

Please contact the Hagley Imprints Department for more information: or 302-658-2400 ext 227.

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By Alessandra Wood, University of Delaware