Professional Painters Confront the Roller

A white-clad professional painter demonstrates a new odorless Du Pont product--with a brush. Photograph. E.I. du Pont Nemours & Company. 1950s. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library, digital collections, 1972341_2901.tif.

A white-clad professional painter demonstrates a new odorless Du Pont product–with a brush. Photograph, E.I. du Pont Nemours & Company, 1950s. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library, digital collections, 1972341_2901.tif.

To counter the DIY movement and recapture their economic and social clout, many professional and unionized painters actively opposed the roller. In the early 1950s, a labor union in Michigan, citing purported health and safety concerns, forbade its contractors from painting with rollers. The union was one among many craft trades that resisted the broad trend of deskilling. However, pro-roller contractors defeated their union in a case before the Michigan supreme court in 1954 and won back the right to select their methods and equipment.

Even after he semi-retired from professional painting, Richard Wilkens remained a card-carrying member of the AFL-CIO. Union card. 1988. The Wilkens Family Collection.

Even after he semi-retired from professional painting, Richard Wilkens remained a card-carrying member of the AFL-CIO. Union card, 1988. The Wilkens Family Collection.

While some professional painters saw the roller as a threat to their livelihoods and swore by their brushes, others recognized the roller’s utility and economy. By the end of the twentieth century, many professional painters chose to use disposable roller covers to spend less time cleaning and caring for their materials. As painters tossed out their single-use rollers and brushes, they also disposed of the experiential knowledge required to use old-fashioned tools. More and more, society devalued and dispensed with material objects and physical skills alike. Bucking the trend, the men in my family were among the dwindling breed of professionals who invested in traditional tools and passed down abilities from generation to generation. Their work, their heritage, and their pride persisted with each brushstroke.

Richard, Floyd, and Emil Wilkens painting with brushes on Main Street, Bowling Green, Ohio. Photograph. 1950s. The Wilkens Family Collection.

Richard, Floyd, and Emil Wilkens painting with brushes on Main Street, Bowling Green, Ohio. Photograph, 1950s. The Wilkens Family Collection.

 

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