Hi, I’m Deanna Dahlsad of Fair Oaks Antiques, here with This Week’s Story, and I am a paint by number collector. (If you’d prefer, you can listen to the podcast here.)

Deanna Dahlsad paint by number collection
This Week's Story podcast paint by numbers
vintage paint by numbers dahlsad

Many mock paint by number paintings, saying the works are kitsch – meaning they are of poor taste. Even those who love kitsch in an ironic or humorous way may discount paint by numbers by saying they are not art, they are conformism. But knowledgeable collectors of PBNs, like myself, know that these works are important cultural icons – and anything but conformism.

The mere popularity of paint by numbers is a very American thing. Inspired by childhood memories of coloring and the art history lesson of Michelangelo assigning his students to paint pre-numbered sections of his famous Sistine Chapel, paint by numbers hold significant places in both mass merchandising commerce and the freedom of anti-establishism.

The matter of paint by number paintings being art — or, rather, not being art — wasn’t really an issue in the 50′s. Recreation specialists & home economists had begun to speak of hobbies as more than a way to beat the unemployed Depression-era-nothing-to-do-blues, more than a way to improve morale, but as “the fifth freedom,” along with freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear. The prevailing wisdom of the postwar period was that creative hobbies enhanced life and made it worth living, prompting popular celebrities like Frank Sinatra & Dinah Shore to paint as a pastime. With “Sunday painters” like President Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, even the military had adopted this mindset, setting up hobby craft shops in the Pacific Theater and opening the first hobby craft shop at the Alameda Naval Air Station in California.

In 1952, an amateur painter in San Francisco entered and won third place at an art competition with one of Craft Master’s kits. Both the press and the public had a field day noting how judges could not tell the difference between a paint by number work and Modern Art — an art style in its hey-day, but one many people at the time were confused by &/or fed up with.

This was the tipping point for paint by numbers. They became so popular that The White House even hung paint-by-number paintings by J. Edgar Hoover, Nelson Rockefeller and others in a West Wing corridor along with other artists’ original works.

Karal Ann Marling, Professor of Art History and American Studies at the University of Minnesota, has written several books about the sensibilities of the 1950s. In her book, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s, Marling paints the PBN trend as an outgrowth of World War II hobby-ism rather than a sign of conformity:

National surveys taken in the 1930s, when the Depression curtailed spending on equipment and travel, disclosed a sedentary pattern of recreation: respondents were reading magazines and listening to the radio and visiting with friends. What they really wanted to do, however, was to play tennis and golf, plant a garden, go swimming or skating. In the 1940s, wish became reality. Between 1947 and 1953, revenues for spectator sports and amusements showed a marked dip, despite increases in population and income and the insatiable demand for TV sets. …Market research proved that it was the heaviest TV-watchers who were liable to be most interested in painting a still life or reupholstering the living room sofa. Power tools and other do-it-yourself accessories were a $12 billion industry by the end of the decade; $30 million more went for amateur art supplies. “There seems to be a major trend away from passive, crowd amusements toward active pursuits that people can carry on independently,” concluded a highly regarded study of this “Changed America” with plenty of time on its hands.

More than other pastimes which grew during this time, the do-it-yourself spirit was also a way for man, woman, and child to find his or her way in this new world. It was non-conformist:

Do-it-yourselfism, in particular, was the last refuge for the exercise of control and competence in a world run by the bosses and the bureaucrats. It was a throwback, a rebuke to a buy-it-in-a-box world of TV dinners and ready-made everything.

As Michael Kimmelman wrote in 1994 is Art View for The New York Times (Painting by Numbers: How Bad Was It?), “Paint-by-numbers enthusiasts and Abstract Expressionists alike were affected by the same 50′s Zeitgeist: the tension between social strictures and personal freedom.”

Painting now could be an enjoyable pastime, a therapeutic outlet; not only reserved for the trained and talented.

However, painting by a kit was a very American idea.

Marling says paint by numbers were, “the most American thing you can imagine in that you package up everything you need in a box instead of going through lengthy instruction in how to paint or how to mix colors. It was a personal experience for the painter.” She continued, “You could almost call it supermarket Freudianism.”

While some object to the stamped boards of sameness which are to be painted according to ordained rules, we PBN collectors know that many did paint outside the lines, adding images, painting over what they didn’t like, or otherwise personalizing their works. And even when folks didn’t, they still produced unique folk art pieces. The kits may have been mass-produced, but individuals created each painted piece.

Many say that the paint by number hey-day is long over. Yet the kits continue to be painted — and continue to be made. Some may say this is primarily the pastime of children, but one needn’t look any further than the adult coloring book phenomenon to see that adults enjoy creative outlets too. It’s obvious in the popularity of shows like NBC’s Making It and entire cable channels dedicated to DIY programming.

Thanks to the current pandemic, crafting has exploded. The Smithsonian, which had an exhibit on paint by numbers in 2001, noted that the lockdowns have resulted in hands-on hobbies gaining traction as relaxing alternatives to screen-heavy activities. Etsy, arguably the world’s largest e-commerce website for craft supplies, handmade items (& vintage), has documented the uptick in the DIY trend. In May of this year, Etsy said that there had been a 346% increase in searches on Etsy for “diy”, a whopping 956% increase in searches for “embroidery kit”. Huge gains in other specific classic crafty hobbies were seen as well.

Clearly, there are shades of what Marling noted in the 1940s & 50s happening right now.

And there are other similarities as well.

The original paint by number kits consisted of rolled canvas (like window shades) and numbered glass jars containing paint – though they were “mystery” pictures, where the painter only discovered what they were painting only by applying the appointed colors.

If this reminds you of today’s trend of mystery boxes, you are not alone.

Loot Crate is often credited with the mystery box phenom, beginning with its subscription box service in 2012. Since then, it has become clear that it’s human nature to delight in surprises – even when they aren’t your own. One needn’t go any further than the huge number of views on YouTube unboxing videos to see the vicarious entertainment value of simply watching someone open to reveal the contents of a mystery box.

A rather jaded Luke Winkie at Vox says the appeal of mystery boxes is based on how much fun it is to unwrap presents. “Essentially, the mystery-box gambit is a clever trick to fool millennials into paying for a year-round Christmas experience.”

But I say the huge popularity of mystery boxes is proof that you shouldn’t underestimate the power of anticipation, of human curiosity, the love of surprise – or, for that matter, the love of having an experience – not just an object.

Crafty types, especially those who love to work with ephemera and found items, have always loved a mystery box – only we’ve known them by their vintage name: Grab Bags.

The act of grabbing a wrapped random item or a bag containing an assortment of miscellaneous items without knowing the contents has always been a thrill. It began when I was a kid – primarily because it was an affordable thrill. It continues today because the serendipity of discovery leads to creative inspiration. The Germans aptly call grab bags Wundertüte – and I think that encapsulates the joy so well.

Like paint by numbers, mystery boxes and grab bags may seem kitschy simple thrills for easily entertained minds – but their popularity exposes so much more about our culture, about what we crave, that I think dismissal of them is rather sad. There’s nothing wrong with a joyful, creative experience, whether we stay in the lines or not.

This has been Deanna Dahlsad sharing This Week’s Story for Fair Oaks Antiques. 

We sell online and in the Fargo North Dakota – Moorhead Minnesota area exclusively at Fargo Antiques & Repurposed Market in booths #25-27.

 

Fargo vintage grab bags
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This Week’s Story is prompted by a vintage piece of lingerie. You can listen to the audio podcast here.

This particular lingerie piece, in a powder blue satin, is more slinky sleepshirt than naughty negligee. With its built-in shoulder pads and double-breasted suit jacket front, this nightie looks more like an oversized power suit jacket than something you’d find in the ladies’ intimates department. It’s oh-so 80s.

vintage 80s double-breasted lingerie with shoulder pads

But the garment’s roots are in the 1940s. Designer Elsa Schiaparelli may have lit the shoulder pad fuse in 1931, but it wasn’t until World War II began that the big bang of shoulder pads in women’s fashions really exploded.

Women’s fashions became steadily militarized, heavy in masculine styles with shoulder pads becoming increasingly bulkier and positioned at the top of the shoulder to create a solid, strong look.

Soon the style was ubiquitous in female fashions, found in all garments except for lingerie.

So leave it to the 1980s, decade of excess, to put shoulder pads in the lingerie.

Fashions of the 80s rigorously borrowed from many previous decades – exaggerating things as it went.

From the 40s – big shoulders and double-breasted suits.

From the 1950s, the 80s took rolled jeans and rocker leather. Those soft 50s pastel angora sweaters were back – now paired primarily with black for higher contrast. And the classic 1950s ponytail become the exaggerated side ponytail.

From 1960s fashions, the 80s took mini-skirts, bold colors, and mod geometric patterns.

Of course, there was a great backlash to all this big, bold, exaggerated 80s fashion too.

Brands such as Laura Ashley & Jessica McClintock’s Gunne Sax surged forward with their fond looks backward towards a softer, feminine, romance associated with prairie and Victorian-styled designs. A time when women were women and men were men. (Of course, leaving out the facts that back in those good old days manly men and womanly women had to use outhouses and chamber pots, as we often do when romancing the past.)

This gender power struggle dynamic displayed in culture as fashion can be seen clearly in the 1980s television show Dynasty. The show’s costume designer, Nolan Miller, dressed his stars, Linda Evans and Joan Collins, in more than just the glamorous gowns of the wealthy. Their wardrobes were built on establishing and displaying the female leads’ authority and power. Big shoulder pads were needed for such big ambitions!

But even as those huge-shouldered power suits represented the power in the new working woman, it was also necessary to show that underneath her “bitch in the boardroom” persona, she was “all woman” underneath. Enter lingerie.

All things silky and lacy were paramount to a woman’s 80s wardrobe. Whether it was underwear as outerwear, a la Madonna, or it was a silky soft teddy beneath that tough power suit, lingerie was an 80s necessity. In the case of this vintage 80s piece, one would balance the “I mean business!” double-breasted, shoulder-padded night-suit by wearing the “Monkey business, baby!” of an all lace bodysuit (typically with stockings) beneath it.

This is the intimates fashion equivalent of Enjolie’s “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan. And never, ever let you forget you’re a man.”

Like I said, classic 80s.

Item details: Available in booth #27 at The FARM. Ladie’s size Medium. Cloth label: Charmeuse, 100% polyester. Machine wash; tumble dry low. Price: $26.95

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Hi, I’m Deanna Dahlsad of Fair Oaks Antiques. This Week’s Story is a little bit different… It’s still about an object, just not one for sale. And it’s also a story for the month, as you’ll see. A reminder: You can listen to This Week’s Story as a podcast!

Due to it being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October is now synonymous with pink. Since 2009, the NFL has pushed the man-enough-to-wear-pink message to encourage men to care about women’s breasts. As if the NFL, its members & fans, need encouragement in that area. It really is an odd ogling message for a league beleaguered with misogyny and the coverup of player health issues. Especially as the movement aimed to reach out and pander to more women. It would have been better for the NFL to punish abusive players and address player health issues. But hoping on the “Pinkwashing” train of commodifying and profiting off of breast cancer was too-too easy – like fraud levels of easy.

Now most of us know how we were exploited in the name of pink merchandise for cancer awareness and now avoid the scams of such a shadow industry. And perhaps this is why the NFL has quietly shifted away from breast cancer awareness to a broader cancer-awareness with its more colorful “Crucial Catch” program.

But the decade-long marriage between the masculine nature of the NFL and the girly pink merch is an interesting one. In 2000, who would have thought that such macho men would be wearing pink? Well, those of us alive in the 80s recall men in pastel pink polo shirts – and they weren’t afraid to tell you they were secure enough in their masculinity to wear pink either. And those of us even older remember men wearing pink too.

Vintage clothing catalogs are filled with examples, such as bright & cheery pink & black cowboy playsuits. Yup, pink shirts and pants with black hats & even holsters to hold silver pistols. For boys too.

In fact, we have a long and documented history of pink being the preferred color for boys. Not only in fashion catalogs and department store ads, but in trade publications and national news magazines, such as Time. Going back as far as the early 1800s, pink was considered the stronger more resolute color, therefore most suitable for boys, while blue, being more delicate and dainty, was best for girls. The Smithsonian has a great article about this gender color phenomenon, if you are interested.

I was reminded of all of this pink business whilst we were restoring our old house, Esmerelda. There in the basement, surrounded by walls painted in that battleship basement grey (which must have been the law at some point because every basement I’ve seen has had at least one coat of that color), our 100+-year-old house sports a brick chimney – and it’s covered in pink paint.

It would seem an odd color choice – unless you knew the history of the color pink. For it is important to keep your chimney strong and clear – it literally keeps your house in the pink.

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Hi, I’m Deanna Dahlsad of Fair Oaks Antiques.  This inaugural edition of ‘This Week’s Story’ is based on a mixed media artwork we found. (You can listen to this short audio podcast here!)

We found this piece on the street during Fargo’s Cleanup Week. Yes, that makes us trash pickers. That’s not really news; we’ve been on Night Time Live with Bob Harris (on The Mighty KFGO) a number of times talking about this. Obviously, rescuing works like this is nothing we are embarrassed about.

As an artist, the idea of another artist tossing her works out made me a bit sad though. And it reminded me of a debate I had with a professor in my college days.

In an art history class, we were discussing Venus de Milo I think it was… If not, it was another classical marble sculpture designated as Art with a capital A. Yet this work of art was found in a garbage pit; discarded, it seems, by its creator.

If, as we were being taught, Art with a capital A is defined as works which are created to be beautiful or to communicate important ideas or express the creator’s feelings – how could a work thrown out by its creator be considered art? If the artist himself had decided that the work was inferior – either by not communicating the intended message or not meeting the creator’s definition of “beautiful” – how could we call it art?

This, of course, leads to axioms of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Not to mention the classic, “I know it when I see it.”

That last line is most known in the US for its role in the porn vs art debate in a landmark Supreme Court obscenity case. However flawed that statement is – & it is, all these expressions lead to paths of individualism and subjectivity, to the arbitrary whims of personal taste.

Yet, if enough of us agree to call a thing beautiful, or otherwise feel we “get it”, we can call an ancient discarded marble sculpture “Art with a capital A.”

Which is why this person will happily sort through another’s trash just to salvage a piece which will become another’s art treasure.

The mixed media artwork is $89.95 and can be found in our space, booth #27, at Fargo Antiques & Repurposed Market. Dealer code YES.

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