Boomers Painted By Number

Like so many anonymous influencers of the Boomer Era, not many people know the name, Dan Robbins. Yet, if you mention that Mr. Robbins brought the 1950s and ’60s craze of paint-by-number kits to America, the recognition light bulb glows brightly. This past week, Dan Robbins died at the age of 93.

The story goes, Mr. Robbins was a commercial artist employed by the Palmer Paint Company in Detroit, Michigan. The company specialized in children’s paints. In the late 1940s, he was tasked by his boss, Max Klein, to find a way for the company to sell more paint to adults. Recalling that Leonardo Da Vinci had created a technique to teach his studio apprentices that involved a by-number system, Mr. Robbins put together the idea of a kit, which would include oil paint, a brush, a small bottle of turpentine and a canvas board that had an image in light blue or gray printed on it. The image was broken down into areas of color. Each area was given a number that corresponded with the number on the included cups of paint.

Mr. Robbins chose as his first image a mishmash of three modern abstract artists and showed it to his boss. Mr. Klein hated the imagery, but loved the idea. It wasn’t a new idea, since the first paint-by-number patent was issued in 1923 — but very quickly it became evident the Palmer Paint Company, and Dan Robbins, as its chief artist, were on to something. The first Craft Master Paint-by-Number kit was brought to market in 1950, and cost $2.50. $2 million worth of kits were sold that first year. By 1955, the peak of the craze, sales reached $20 million. By then several other companies had joined in, the market became over saturated, and sales dropped.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, printmaking was at its zenith, offering an affordable way for the public to display art in their homes. Currier and Ives made a career out of it, and many boomers will recall grandparents or parents displaying prints, or reproductions of prints, in their homes when boomers were young. It was an entrance into the art world. Decades later, the paint-by-number kit offered a chance for anyone to feel what it was like to create something with paint, and display it as coming from their hands. The mothers of boomers, as well as growing boomers, were especially the target for the sale of the kits.

Dan Robbins was responsible for drawing the first 30 or so originals that were then broken down into separate colors by placing an acetate sheet over the painting and tracing the color edges. Categories of imagery were animals (mostly cats, dogs and horses); landscapes; people (especially clowns, matadors and dancers); copies of famous paintings (like Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa); and religious scenes. It was a combination of the last two categories that brought about the company’s best seller: A paint-by-number copy of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Many boomers will recall entering homes of their relatives or friends that had one of these painted Last Supper kits hung on the wall.

Mister Boomer had a brief foray into the paint-by-number world via a Christmas present one year. He was artistically inclined from a very early age, so more than likely his aunt thought the kit might foster his already burgeoning love of drawing and painting. Instead, though it was his introduction to using oil paints, Mister B found the work — a landscape — tedious and boring. He was much more interested in coming up with his own images, his own way and with his own color choices.

Similar kits are still available today, but the heyday for paint-by-number looks back at the early days of the Boomer Generation. In a similar vein, today’s adult coloring books offer an experience like the paint-by-number kits, but with the twenty-first century twist of not only being available in print books, but on screen with a phone app.

How about you, boomers? Did you or someone in your family try their hand at a paint-by-number kit?

Boomers Get Personalized

Have you noticed the preponderance of personalization permeating your personal snail mail and email these days? If so, you are far from alone. Once the purview of mail order businesses before they morphed into the world of e-commerce, now there is hardly an offer of any kind — whether delivered by the post office or into your inbox — that does not employ some form of name personalization.

Mister Boomer has received an increasing number of these lately, including charity requests for money, outright “cold call” sales offers (everything from auto warranty extenders to credit cards and cemetery plots!) or companies he has previously done business with thanking him for earlier business and begging for more. Mister B has observed, with some curiosity, that they fall into roughly three categories: First, the more traditional approach sticks with a formal letter greeting opening with a full, “Mister Boomer” personalization. These tend to not repeat the name personalization in every paragraph, but do generally conclude a plea by calling out the name. Secondly, there are those that may start out with a courteous salutation, but quickly transform into what can only be described as, “there, I said ‘hello,’ now we can call you by your first name.” Can you imagine that, (YOUR FIRST NAME HERE)? You are on first-name basis with people you don’t even know! The third are the ones that make no pretensions, and go directly to first name mentions throughout. These last two particularly irk Mister Boomer. Does it do the same for you, (YOUR FIRST NAME HERE)?

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time “personalization” was reserved for people we actually knew, either in terms of correspondence through the mail, or by in-person relationships. For many boomers, perhaps their first personalized letter came from Santa Claus. After writing a list of requests to jolly old St. Nick, many post offices offered a personalization service reply, direct from Santa, of course, mailed back to little Susie or Jimmy. Other than birthday cards from relatives, it was more than likely the first time they received a letter that was personalized. For Mister Boomer, one of the earliest memories of personalization is from an in-person interaction. When his mother walked him to the bank and opened a savings book account with him, each time he returned to the bank to make a deposit, the teller would cheerfully ask, “How are you today, Master Boomer?” Once Mister B turned 18, the bank tellers called him “Mister Boomer,” a practice that did not end until he moved from the area and changed banks. When he began frequenting local establishments in his twenties, he might be greeted with a friendly, “Mister Boomer” shout-out by a bartender or restaurant hostess or owner. When the relationship was solid enough, the correct etiquette for those situations, so we were taught, was to tell them in response to call you whatever first name or nickname you preferred, prefacing the response with, “please,” of course.

Boomers were taught to respect their elders and people in authority. Boomers would never call a friend’s parent by their first name. You didn’t do that when you were young, right (YOUR FIRST NAME)? Some later-year boomers may recall a “cool” teacher asking the class to call him by his first name (these types were usually males, for some reason), but that was never an option in the 1950s and ’60s. Teachers were always addressed as Mr., Mrs. or Miss, never Pete, Cheryl or Kathy. This may be one of the first instances Mister Boomer can conjure where name personalization precluded a longer-term association.

By the 1970s, the atmosphere became more relaxed for some boomers. Aunts, uncles, friends of parents and others allowed boomers under the age of 21 to call them by their first name, though it was still the exception to the rule. It was around this time that direct mail began its descent into the world of name personalization. Mister B thinks it may have started in earnest with that company that used to try to sell magazines through the mail by having an annual sweepstakes. All you had to do, (YOUR FULL NAME), was look inside the envelope and return the winning ticket. That’s right, the personalization started on the outside envelope. Once inside, the company quickly switched to a first-name basis, imploring the reader to make their order of magazines and send in the sweepstakes entry, or else miss out on winning more money than they dreamed possible. Mister Boomer’s mother used the sweepstakes as her opportunity to renew her Good Housekeeping or McCall’s magazines, so she wouldn’t miss her chance at becoming a big money winner. It worked in her case.

In a world where some top elected officials call other government officials by their first name, or worse, nickname, is it any wonder that this fake personalization practice continues to spread? To make matters worse, marketing data states that personalization works: people are more apt to answer email when their name appears in the subject line, and act on emails more often when their name is used in the body of the text. Even worse, Adage reports that in a recent survey of marketers, a full one-third said the most important tool for marketing in the near future is personalization. Thank goodness Mister Boomer readers have more sense than the average blog reader. (YOUR FIRST NAME HERE), you’d never fall for a blatant exploitation such as that, would you? Just because someone called you by name, doesn’t mean you’d share the info with all your friends and family and forward a blog URL through your social media, right (YOUR FIRST NAME HERE)?

Well fellow boomer (YOUR FIRST NAME HERE), how do you feel about this ongoing personalization trend? Is it “thumb’s up,” “thumb’s down” or “Eh? Makes no difference.”