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MATTHEW HOLLISTER
MATTHEW HOLLISTER

The History of Paint-by-Numbers

MATTHEW HOLLISTER
MATTHEW HOLLISTER

In March 1951, shoppers of all ages descended on Macy’s in New York City’s Herald Square. Though the holidays were long over, eager customers packed in for a glimpse of the first in-store demonstration of a new craft project called paint-by-number. They swarmed the demonstrators and bought multiple sets without hesitation. Anyone present could see that the kit had mass appeal. As word of the frenzy reached the annual New York City Toy Fair taking place a few blocks away, orders began pouring in from retailers around the country.

There was just one problem: The customers were fake. Or mostly fake. The creators of the phenomenon would never know for sure. The rush on Macy’s was part of one of the most brilliant publicity stunts in the history of art or business. But the product itself was inspired by a different genius— Leonardo da Vinci.

When Dan Robbins, the 13th employee of Detroit-based Palmer Paint Co., read that da Vinci taught his apprentices the basics of painting by using numbered patterns on a canvas, he suspected the idea might have wider appeal. So he worked to put out a new product that would delight aspiring artists of all ages.

Unfortunately, no one wanted his Craft Master paint-by-number kits. Most retailers feared customers wouldn’t get the concept or wouldn’t want such a remedial art project. Finally, S.S. Kresge (later Kmart) took a chance and placed a big order. But due to a packaging snafu, the paints for two kits got swapped: Colors intended for “The Fishermen” ended up in boxes for “The Bullfighter.” Hobbyists stared at the blue-caped matadors battling green bulls, wondering where it had all gone wrong. Hit with demands for refunds, Kresge canceled all future orders.

Desperate to get its product back on shelves, Palmer Paint knew it had to act fast. Max Klein, the company’s founder, had an idea. Klein and Robbins started by asking the Macy’s toy buyer to let them demonstrate their kits in-store, promising that any unsold merchandise could be returned free of charge. Macy’s had nothing to lose by signing on. Then, Klein hired two reps to grease a few palms. In his 1998 memoir, Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers?, Robbins recalls, “Max gave each of the reps $250, telling them to hand it out to friends, relatives, neighbors, anyone that would be willing to go to Macy’s and buy one of our Craft Master sets for $2.50.” That was $500—more than enough money to buy all the kits in the store.

Sure enough, the trick worked and “customers” flooded in. But Klein and Robbins forgot one detail: They didn’t keep track of who’d been given cash. In fact, they had no idea how many of the sets had been sold to their own plants and how many went to real customers caught up in the hysteria. Regardless, news of the sellout spread to buyers at the fair, and orders skyrocketed. Fake sales begat real ones, and paint-by-numbers turned into a full-blown fad.

Critics and serious artists scoffed at the idea that you didn’t need talent or training to make something worth hanging on a wall. But the rest of the country? It couldn’t get enough. Before long, paint-by-number landscapes and puppies had invaded the nation’s living rooms. Fan mail from adults and kids poured in; one housewife from Maryland wrote: “My home is disgraceful, and I sit here all day and paint. I’m spending my husband’s money, which I ought to be saving. Please send me a list of any new subjects you have.” By 1954, Palmer Paint boasted $20 million in sales of its Craft Master kits, 1,200 employees, and dozens of competitors. But the company did more than profit from a novelty; it showed that even if you paint yourself into a corner, there’s always a way to market your way out.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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Art
Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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Photo composite, Mental Floss. Car, ticket, Simon Laprise. Background, iStock.
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Design
This Snow Sculpture of a Car Was So Convincing Cops Tried to Write It a Ticket
Photo composite, Mental Floss. Car, ticket, Simon Laprise. Background, iStock.
Photo composite, Mental Floss. Car, ticket, Simon Laprise. Background, iStock.

Winter is a frustrating time to be on the road, but one artist in Montreal has found a way to make the best of it. As CBS affiliate WGCL-TV reports, his snow sculpture of a DeLorean DMC-12 was so convincing that even the police were fooled.

Simon Laprise of L.S.D Laprise Simon Designs assembled the prank car using snow outside his home in Montreal. He positioned it so it appeared to be parked along the side of the road, and with the weather Montreal has been having lately, a car buried under snow wasn’t an unusual sight.

A police officer spotted the car and was prepared to write it a ticket before noticing it wasn’t what it seemed. He called in backup to confirm that the car wasn’t a car at all.

Instead of getting mad, the officers shared a good laugh over it. “You made our night hahahahaha :)" they wrote on a fake ticket left on the snow sculpture.

The masterpiece was plowed over the next morning, but you can appreciate Laprise’s handiwork in the photos below.

Snow sculpture.

Snow sculpture of car.

Snow sculpture of car.

Note written in French.

[h/t WGCL-TV]

All images courtesy of Simon Laprise.

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