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Paint by Number: The How-To Craze that Swept the Nation Paperback – March 1, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

A mass culture obsessed with suburbia, leisure, and consumerism that sought access to high culture: that was 1950s America. Naturally, it was obsessed with paint by number, where all of these cross. A companion to an exhibition at the Smithsonian, Paint by Number follows the craze from its start to Andy Warhol's famous appropriation of the method in his "Do It Yourself" series. Paint by number pitted the creative against the mechanical, and deeply questioned art by giving everyone a paintbrush. This is a scholarly book and, at the same time, a comfortable read (as are most Princeton Architectural Press books), full of paintings, photographs, and ephemera such as advertisements and package designs, which alone stand as proof that one product can retell a critical part of the cultural history of America. It is a fantastic book for anyone interested in the intersection between art and culture in this fast-changing era. --Juliette Cezzar

From Publishers Weekly

In the early 1950s, paint-by-number kits became, for watchdogs of America's artistic ambition, a metaphor for the commercialization, mechanization and "dumbing-down" of American culture. But consumers paid little attention to such finger wagging; in 1954, more "number" paintings hung in American homes than did original works of art. Using 185 color and 15 b&w exemplars, William Bird (Better Living: Advertising, Media and the New Vocabulary of Business Leadership) analyzes the phenomenon in Paint by Number: The How-To Craze that Swept the Nation, which accompanies an exhibition he curated for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (now hanging until December). Based on a Leonardo da Vinci technique for teaching painting, paint by number survives to this day, now collected, traded online and exhibited in galleries.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press; 1 edition (March 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1568982828
  • ISBN-13: 978-1568982823
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 0.6 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #992,588 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William L. Bird, Jr. is Curator of the Political Campaign Collection at the National Museum of American History - Smithsonian Institution. He is the author of several books and curator of exhibits, including "American Television from the Fair to the Family, 1939-1989;" "Vote: The Machinery of Democracy;" "Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s;" "Holidays on Display;" and "America's Doll House: The Miniature World of Faith Bradford." His latest book, "Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes and Curios from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History," is published by the Smithsonian in association with Princeton Architectural Press.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Kelley Hunt on August 16, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is a really neat-o! book.
It's a short book, beautifully illustrated with paint-by-number paintings on almost every page (including paintings completed by J. Edgar Hoover, Nelson Rockefeller, Ethel Merman, and others). There are also lots of photos of advertisements, packaging and promotional displays used to sell the kits. The author discusses Max Klein & Dan Robbins, the men who started the paint-by-number "craze", and some of the other artists who worked on the kits. Despite heavy criticism from the art community, the kits were enormously popular in many countries.
I used to love doing these kits when I was a kid in the '60's and '70's. It may not be "art" but if nothing else I think people learn a little something about colors, shading and composition while working on these kits.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Eileen G. on May 30, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is a beautifully-designed, lavishly illustrated, great-looking, smart book - every page a treat - that is part art book, part pop adventure story, part trenchant cultural history and analysis. Without the irony or condescension heretofore prevalent in discussions about the 1950s' remarkably popular and widespread middlebrow hobby of painting by number, William L. Bird, Jr., a curator at the Smithsonian, starts from the beginning and tells all.
Leonardo da Vinci seems to have thought of it first, as a way to teach painting. In 1952 (after considerable work in the lab and at the drawing board) mass culture combined with smart American commercialism to sell eager Americans first, the rest of the world later - this surprisingly controversial and intensely pleasurable hobby: paint by number. The paintings and their deeply satisfying means of production were denigrated by cultural critics - and loved by millions of regular folks - and Andy Warhol, too.
Students of popular and consumer culture and advertising, those curious about a popular phenomenon that provoked the critics of art and culture to attack relentlessly - or anyone interested in reading about the fun of these paintings and how they came to be - will love this perfect book. The author's mind is flexible and fertile; he takes us on a terrific tour. Clever and funny in places, with a bibliography hundreds of articles and books long. Great book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on February 5, 2002
Format: Paperback
William Bird Jr's Paint By Number traces the history of a movement which swept across the country and created many a budding novice artist. Chapters provide plenty of color photo examples of a changing industry which recognized an unfulfilled desire in the common man to be an artist. The gorgeous displays and ads for the medium are compelling, even for the non-artist reader.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By lns500 on April 29, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I confess, this book as something of a disappointment, because although the written history of PBN was great, there were far too few illustrations. Considering that PBN really was the 'craze that swept the world', I was hoping to have HUNDREDS (as opposed to a couple of dozen) of original PBNs to enjoy. Not only that, but the examples featured here are already the most well known, so if you're looking for a vintage PBNs 'sourcebook', this isn't the book. In fact, there ISN'T a book. (*I made my own by extensively researching on Google Images and printing out my favorite PBNs, then filing them in plastic slip sheets in a ring binder, thus making my own PBN 'sourcebook')
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Hoosier1955 on May 20, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I love this book as it takes my back to the early sixties when I was in grade school (born in 1995). I loved paint by number kits but my Mom wouldn't buy me one for years ( she drew and painted freehand and was very good as were my two sisters) and when she finally bought me one and I finished it, I was so proud. I love the old ads and reading how paint by numbers got their start and how people still love doing them. I myself have been painting paint by numbers regularly for over 20 years. Thanks for a marvelous and nostalgic book with loads of information especially how to care for old paint by numbers.
It is definitely worth the money to buy one of these books!
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