The Durability of Disposability and Family History

This project began with a profession and a set of tools that have been important to my family’s history. As I considered the contexts in which my grandfather, his brother, his father, and his grandfather painted homes, stores, and signs in small-town Ohio, I recalled his mantra to “use the right tool for the job.” If the Wilkens family had a crest, that phrase would certainly be emblazoned across the top. This commonsense wisdom remains a constant presence, in one form or another, throughout painting supply literature, do-it-yourself articles, and manuals from the nineteenth century to the present day. Authors who address amateur audiences first help readers identify their painting needs, then show them how to match the best tools with their jobs. Each user must consider not only the surfaces that require paint, but also the degree to which they should invest in and care for their tools.

Like the stories of my Wilkens forebears, the story of throwaway painting supplies continues into the present. The do-it-yourself painter faces dozens of low-cost, low-investment disposable brushes, roller covers, and applicators at local paint and hardware stores. Many single-use plastic-based products like tray liners and dropcloths now carry triangular recycling symbols, showing that modern manufacturers and consumers may consider—or at least give the appearance of caring about—the environmental implications of disposability. Yet package labels encourage consumers to dodge cleanup work and toss out their supplies without a second thought. Like their predecessors in the 1940s, many painters today clearly value convenience over permanence. As certain skills disappear and American culture continues to change, disposable painting tools and supplies may yet prove quite durable.

Richard Wilkens in his garage, with plenty of tools from which to choose, Bowling Green, Ohio. Photograph. Ca. 1980. The Wilkens Family Collection.

Richard Wilkens in his garage, with plenty of tools from which to choose, Bowling Green, Ohio. Photograph, ca. 1980. The Wilkens Family Collection.



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