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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Today is National Beer Can Appreciation Day, honoring the day beer was first put into cans in 1935, and the Farm is celebrating with a New Year’s Old Beers event – featuring a book signing with Alicia Underlee Nelson, of Prairie Style File! She will be signing copies of her book, North Dakota Beer: A Heady History at the shop from 4 pm to 6 pm.

If you want to get in the mood, here’s an interesting article on beer can history: Meet Archaeology’s Beer Can Man.

Also, we brought in some killer vintage beer items for this event!

Circa the 1950s, a Schlitz globe light (incomplete but rare as all heck & cool to boot!), and a 1963 Pabst 3-D advertising piece featuring golf!

Lots more breweriana & beer collectibles in the shop too – and we dealers keep restocking as this has been super popular! So come check it out – and, don’t worry, if you can’t make it today, Alicia will be back on Saturday, January 25th, from 1 pm to 3 pm to do more book signing!

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In case you missed our social media posts, Fair Oaks Antiques (that’s us!) has had a busy day in the media today!

First, the wifey was quoted in an Inforum story about Fargo Antiques & Repurposed Market, aka “The FARM,” entering its fifth year of business and branching out with events.

Deanna Dahlsad, a vendor who also co-hosts the Trash Or Treasure appraisal events, is excited by the expansion of events calendar.

“After 30-plus years in this business, it’s refreshing to find an antique mall that really gets what it’s all about,” Dahlsad said. “Antiquing or junking is more than a pure materialistic act; it’s about more than the objects themselves. This is about the creativity of self-expression, the preservation of history, the passion of collecting, green living, and so much more. These events are very exciting to me because they bring more opportunities to connect with our “FARM” friends, with like-minded folks.”

Then, at 8pm in the evening, the wifey was live on Night Time Live with Bob Harris (on The Mighty KFGO). She and local North Dakota author Alicia Underlee Nelson, of Prairie Style File, were talking with Bob about the New Year’s Old Beers event at the Farm -check it out!

Oh, yeah, and the aforementioned Trash Or Treasure appraisal fair events are back! Details on the latest one can be found here & you can secure your spot here.

See you at the Farm!

New Year's Old Beers Fargo Event

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If you’ve been keeping up with us at Facebook, you may have noticed that we’ve been quite busy.

One highlight, hubby Derek has written for Prairie Public’s Dakota Datebook radio show – & five of his stories have been selected for the newly released book, Dakota Datebook: North Dakota Stories from Prairie Public. If you love North Dakota history, you should grab a copy!

However, our biggest & busiest news is that we’ve consolidated all our real-world shopping centers into one location: a trio of booth spaces at Fargo Antiques & Repurposed Market, aka The Farm. We still have our Etsy shops, and occasionally offer items on eBay too. But by focusing on one physical shop location in the Fargo-Moorhead area, we are best able to maintain it with fresh vintage, repurposed, collectible, and antique items thereby better serving our customer & client needs.

One of the benefits of this streamlining move, is that we will now be offering our appraisal services, live, in “Trash Or Treasure” events at The Farm.

Typically, our rate is $10 per item; but for these in-store events, the fee will only be $5 per item. Due to public interest, there will be a limit of three items per person, per event.

These verbal appraisals are rather like those seen on Antiques Roadshow in that no written paperwork will be provided and, for ethical reasons, we will not be purchasing your items. (However, if you are interested in selling your item(s), here are the details on The Farm’s free service.)

These quick little appraisals are ideal for discovering the current market value of your item(s) and may be particularly helpful in determining whether or not to keep, donate, or sell. Also, the information will assist in deciding if it makes financial sense to invest in the several hundred dollars that a more in-depth appraisal (for insurance or other contractual purposes) would cost.

We will be available for Trash Or Treasure events at The Farm – and by appointment. If the listed schedule of dates is not ideal for you, or you have more than three items, please contact us to arrange another date and time.

For futher details on, or directions to, Trash Or Treasure appraisal events at The Farm, please visit The Farm’s website &/or Facebook Page.

Thank you – and we’ll see you at The Farm!

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Derek Dahlsad, the hubby half of We Have Your Collectibles (Fair Oaks Antiques), will be the guest on Nighttime Live with Bob Harris tonight, January 16, 2017, at 8:30pm. He’ll be on to talk about Dakota Death Trip. If you love history, especially North Dakota history, give the show a listen. …You also never know what sort of old stuff will come up!

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Derek Dahlsad, the hubby half of Fair Oaks Antiques / We Have Your Collectibles, was just featured in today’s Fargo Forum — on the front page, no less!

The article features Derek’s Dakota Death Trip blog. The site was inspired by and named after Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, one of my favorite books (and films) of all times! Don’t let the name fool you, history buffs & collectors of photographs and ephemera will love it. (Original copies of the book are in high demand too.)

Here’s a link to the article: Fargo man chronicles life and death on the Northern Plains in ‘Dakota Death Trip’.

derek dahlsad fargo forum

UPDATE: Since Inforum doesn’t keep articles viewable very long, here’s a screenshot. Click to enlarge and read.

FireShot Screen Capture #259 - 'Fargo man chronicles life and death on the Northern Plains in 'Dakota Death Trip' I INFORUM I Fargo, ND' - www_inforum_com_event_article_id_431628

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