Paint By Numbers & The Space Race

Space Traveler paint-by-number kit, courtesy of the Paint By Number Museum.  Standard Toykraft, 1958. (http://www.paintbynumbermuseum.com/kit-page/7266)

Space Traveler paint-by-number kit, courtesy of the Paint By Number Museum.  Standard Toykraft, 1958. (http://www.paintbynumbermuseum.com/kit-page/7266)

In 1953, toy paints company, Craft Master, was the driving power behind the paint-by-number craze sweeping the mid-century hobbyist market.  The company had 800 employees who produced 50,000 paint-by-number sets a day, grossing more than a million dollars a month.  Not only had the company invented the paint-by-number movement, they had quashed their competition in the process. 

For five years, Craft Master honed the assembly and distribution of their kits, streamlining their manufacture and marketing.  Professional artists on Craft Master’s payroll – 75 artists at the company’s peak in 1954 – devoted considerable time and artistic expertise to developing a plethora of motifs that quickly came to be inexorably associated with the genre – flowers, bullfighters, fishermen, and landscapes, to name a few.  By 1954, Craft Master was credited with manufacturing enough paint-by-number kits to total over $80 million in sales, published 10 million copies of their 64-page product catalog, and could boast lengthy features in Time and Life

"Facts About Space" from the Toykraft Space Traveler Kit, 1958.  Courtesy of Paint By Number Museum.  (http://www.paintbynumbermuseum.com/kit/8154

"Facts About Space" from the Toykraft Space Traveler Kit, 1958.  Courtesy of Paint By Number Museum.  (http://www.paintbynumbermuseum.com/kit/8154

Although the frenzy for paint-by-number died down a bit by the late 1950s, as Craft Master struggled to meet the manufacturing demands of its popularity and declared bankruptcy, the demand for their “filler-in” kits resurged in the 1960s.  The kits continued to sell into the 1970s, taking advantage of advancements in scanning technology that allowed painting enthusiasts to order personalized paint-by-number kits based on their own photographs, digitized by computers.

“A modern-day collector of filled-in pictures believes that those numbered spaces tell the whole story,” cultural historian Karal Marling suggests, recalling her own childhood enthusiasm for prefabbed kits. “Paint-by-numbers art, he argues, is ‘a great metaphor for life in the rigid McCarthy America.  You stayed in the lines.’  But if you were an art-mad kid, you were delighted with the chance to use the medium and not mess up the finished picture.”[i]

Space Traveler paint-by-number kit, Toykraft 1958.  Courtesy of Paint By Number Museum (http://www.paintbynumbermuseum.com/kit/8154

Space Traveler paint-by-number kit, Toykraft 1958.  Courtesy of Paint By Number Museum (http://www.paintbynumbermuseum.com/kit/8154

Standard Toykraft was one of the many companies that Craft Master overpowered in the paint-by-number race of the 1950s.  Where Craft Master focused on motifs of animals, landscapes, and bowls of fruit, Standard Toykraft offered a Space Traveler Paint By Number kit, among many others.  Put on the market a mere one year after the launch of Sputnik 1, the Space Traveler set included paints, a brush, canvases, and a "space fact" sheet -- but it also conveyed a cultural connection between science, art, the Space Race, and childhood activities.

 

References

[i] Dan Robbins, Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers? : A Humorous Personal Account of What It Took to Make Anyone an “Artist,” First Edition (Delavan, Wis.: Dan Robbins Inc, 1998), pp. xi.

Suggested Readings

Rebecca Onion, Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).