The New Leisure
The decade of the 1950s was one of prosperity. Rising incomes
and shorter workweeks gave Americans more leisure and more money
to spend. Business was happy to supply this market with leisure-time
products-from television sets to barbecue grills to paint-by-number
kits. A new mass culture based on consumerism took shape. Writing
in Life magazine in the late 1950s, cultural critic Russell Lynes
set out to describe the popular pastimes of the "new leisure."
He observed that the usual markers of class-education, wealth,
and breeding-no longer applied. The one thing that mattered was
something that everyone had. That something, Lynes explained,
was free time. In postwar America, class had become a matter of
how one spent his or her free time.
The simulation of creative experience was a key selling point
for paint by number. In this trade-show demonstration, the exhibitor
emphasized the point with this "believe it or not" notice: "The
lady painting this picture is not a painter." Among its harshest
critics, the hobby seemed less a simulation than a violation of
art, an attack on the last vestige of personal expression in an
increasingly impersonal consumer society.
While critics complained that "number filler inners" were experts
at wasting time, the hobby did introduce many people to the tools
of art and the process of painting. For their part, retailers
welcomed the paint-by-number kit as a "transition item," estimating
that ten percent of paint-by-number hobbyists went on to purchase
traditional art supplies for their own compositions.
At the height of its popularity, paint by number touched every
level of American society. The hobby's ultimate display took place
not in a department store or a trade fair but in the Eisenhower
White House, where presidential appointment secretary Thomas Edwin
Stephens mounted a gallery of paint-by-number and amateur paintings
by administration officials and acquaintances.
In 1954, Stephens distributed Picture Craft kits to cabinet secretaries
and Oval Office visitors. More than a few assumed that the president
himself expected that they paint them, and the puckish Stephens
did little to dispel that impression. He eventually installed
the completed paintings in a West Wing corridor. The Stephens
Collection also included works by the administration's amateur
painters, who chose to bypass the preplanned canvas route.