True Blue: DuPont and the Color Revolution

Detail, “Save the Surface” campaign advertisement, The Literary Digest, 11 February 1928. Courtesy of Regina

Detail, “Save the Surface” campaign advertisement, The Literary Digest, 11 February 1928. Courtesy of Regina

In August 1926 Irénée du Pont, vice chairman at E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, wrote to Henry H. Bassett, general manager of the Buick division at General Motors Corporation (GM) with a proposition. During the early 1920s DuPont and GM, both under the leadership of Pierre S. du Pont, had developed Duco finish, a quick-drying, durable, inexpensive, and colorful automotive lacquer. More recently DuPont’s corporate colorists had created a distinctive palette for GM. Now the automotive giant, which used Duco finish on many of its cars, was trying to lure DuPont’s premier colorist, H. Ledyard Towle, to its Fisher Body division. Naturally, Irénée du Pont objected.

Towle ran DuPont’s Duco Color Advisory Service in New York, taking orders from automobile companies and advising them on style and color. The advisory service enhanced DuPont’s reputation as a trustworthy firm that responded to customers’ needs while safeguarding their aesthetic decisions. If Towle were to leave for GM, DuPont’s relationship with other automakers might be jeopardized. It was imperative that Towle—and Detroit’s trade secrets about color—remain at DuPont.

The DuPont-GM deliberations over Towle coincided with major shifts in corporate design practice during the 1920s. Companies making all types of products, from pots and pans to airplanes and automobiles, experimented with ways to increase sales. Efforts included mass advertising, installment selling, model changes— and color merchandising. Color’s popularity as a business tool led Fortune, the nation’s new corporate magazine, to publish a 1930 feature article “Color in Industry,” describing a “suddenly kaleidoscopic world,” in which color served as “a master salesman, a distributor extraordinary.” Fortune gave a catchy name to this monumental change: the color revolution.

In this context DuPont needed the expertise of colorists like Towle. Traditionally the fashion industry set the style trends in color, and others followed. Interpreting fashion colors for Detroit required special skills. Corporate colorists had to temper the sometimes outrageous hues generated by Parisian couturiers to suit Americans’ casual lifestyles and varied tastes. Another constraint came from manufacturers, who demanded cost-effectiveness. Automakers were caught between the efficiencies of black and an uncontrolled, expensive explosion of color. The rule of averages eventually dominated the great middlebrow market, the major audience for colorful cars. Middle Americans shared a desire for higher living standards, but they were divided by income, education, ethnicity, and social class. Commercial color became a tool for expressing this subtle tension; DuPont’s corporate colorists were the men who mediated the terrain.

Duco Innovation

Duco’s first colors originated from a DuPont–GM partnership that channeled managerial, engineering, and scientific talent between the two companies. By early 1922 the firms started to adapt Viscolac, a DuPont nitrocellulose lacquer used for painting pencils, into a new lacquer, Duco, suitable for automobile finishes. Until the early 1920s the only durable, inexpensive automotive finish was the famous high-temperature–baked black enamel that Henry Ford used on his Model T. Luxury cars, such as the Cadillac and Rolls Royce, came in a range of hand-painted colors, but even those varnishes faded, chipped, and scratched. Alfred P. Sloan, who had become GM president in May 1923, believed that consumers buying lower-priced cars would appreciate a range of color choices, particularly if the paints lasted. The automaker’s Oakland Motor Car Company decided to paint all seven of its 1924 touring cars with Duco; each got two shades of blue, with accent stripes of red or orange. This “True Blue” treatment made its debut on Oaklands at the New York Automobile Show in December 1923, dealers and consumers responded to the new aesthetic dimension and the promise of improved technical performance. By early 1924 orders poured into GM showrooms; “Duco has become so popular,” reported one executive, “that customers are now demanding it.” Recognizing that Duco was a sensation, Sloan recommended that GM apply it to all models. By mid-1925 GM’s divisions, from Chevrolet to Cadillac, were putting aside tried-and-true varnishes and enamels in favor of Duco.