Paint It Yourself in Postwar America

Display of nylon plastic paint brush bristles. Photograph. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company. 1948. Courtesy the Hagley Museum and Library, digital images, 72270_810.tif.

Display of nylon plastic paint brush bristles. Photograph, E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, 1948. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library, digital collections, 72270_810.tif.

During and immediately after the Second World War, technological, economic, and social transformations reshaped the market for painting supplies and opened the door to disposable options. Synthetic nylon bristles and fibers began to replace natural animal hair on painting tools and helped to lower costs, which allowed more types of consumers to buy new products. Companies like Sherwin-Williams and Du Pont sidestepped their longstanding professional customers and marketed directly to the public. Demand for paint and painting tools accelerated alongside rising middle-class affluence and suburban home construction. This context helps to explain when, why, and how low-cost throwaway painting tools emerged.

Selling the versatility and ease of using Du Pont's Duco paint. Print advertisement. Better Homes and Gardens. 1952. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library, digital collections, P20100811_006.tif.

Selling the versatility and ease of using Du Pont’s Duco paint. Print advertisement, Better Homes and Gardens, 1952. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library, digital collections, P20100811_006.tif.

As these drawings show, designers of painting tools considered the needs of users. Technical illustration. Universal Design. 1949. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library, digital collections, Lamb175.jpg.

As these drawings show, designers of painting tools considered the needs of users. Technical illustration, Universal Design, 1949. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library, digital collections, Lamb175.jpg.

As historian Carolyn Goldstein suggests in her book Do It Yourself, professional skills were “designed and built into” painting tools. These simple pieces of technology helped to catalyze the DIY craze. One contemporary estimate found that from 1945 to 1953, the number of homeowners who did their own painting nearly doubled from 35 to 65 percent.

DIY expectations for the postwar homeowner and handyman. Magazine cover. Time. September 1954. http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19540802,00.html

DIY expectations for the postwar homeowner and handyman. Magazine cover, art by Boris Artzybasheff, Time, 2 August 1954. http://content.time.com.

Advertisements and how-to articles in magazines like Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and The Family Handyman fueled do-it-yourselfers’ desires for paints and supplies. Popular periodicals like Time celebrated power tools, drywall, paint rollers, and other new products that helped do-it-yourself homeowners attain professional-looking results. As never before, the amateur handyman could make home-improvement decisions without hiring professionals like my grandfather. Throwaway painting tools symbolized the democratization of postwar homeownership, maintenance, and consumption.

 

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