The Materials of Family, Skill, and Work

To do their jobs, painters must have knowledge, skills, and supplies. The evolution of painting tools and the emergence of disposable options show how Americans think about their work and hobbies. Compare a well-worn but cared-for brush with a low-cost throwaway roller cover, and discover how society invests in its crafts, its materials, and its people.

by Benjamin Wilkens Wollet                    May 2014

© Benjamin Wilkens Wollet 2014


Two generations of white-clad painters: Emil and John Henry Wilkens in Bowling Green, Ohio. Photograph, ca. 1910. The Wilkens Family Collection.

Like a photo album or home movie, a physical artifact can collect, preserve, and share a family’s stories, traditions, and livelihoods. Thinking about an object’s time and use reveals a family’s individual past and that family’s place within broader histories. In this spirit, I examine the skills and tools of painting and decorating that defined the work of at least three generations of men in my family. My maternal grandfather Richard Wilkens, his brother Floyd, his father Emil, and his grandfather John Henry were all professional house painters. By examining the tools and supplies that they, their peers, and their successors used, I not only understand more about my Wilkens heritage, but also learn how my family encountered social and economic trends in the twentieth century. Anyone with objects, images, and memories of a family’s past can embark on such a project.


Richard Wilkens’s paint scrapers and replacement blades. Wood and metal, 20th century. The Wilkens Family Collection.

Paintbrushes, roller covers, and worn paint scrapers all speak to the histories of skill, professionalism, choice, and use. By cracking open the can of painting supplies and stirring up the contents, the fumes of a good story begin to waft out. After World War Two, a particular category of painting tools—the disposable brush, roller, and pad—developed alongside rising homeownership and the do-it-yourself (DIY) craze. Low-cost throwaway painting tools helped to democratize home improvement, encouraging the do-it-yourself trend and weakening the social and economic clout of professional painters.

Disposable painting equipment reflects a society that devalues traditional manual skills and knowledge and invests less time and attention to some of its basic implements. My grandfather, a professional and a perfectionist, never opted for the disposable paintbrush and instead devoted much time and attention to his tools. Yet he represented the old guard. Since the late 1940s, many professional and amateur painters have found reasons to adopt, use, and eventually throw away disposable equipment.


This exhibit is arranged thematically and chronologically.  Use this menu to explore the exhibit or click on the paint roller to advance:

1. Painting in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries          2. Painters and Their Brushes

3. Paint It Yourself in Postwar America          4. Rollers, Brushes, and Skill

5. Professional Painters Confront the Roller          6. “Brushes You Can Throw Away”

7. “When the job is done, just throw them away”          8. Rejecting Disposability

9. The Durability of Disposability and Family History          10. Roll On: A Brief Bibliography



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