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

Duco had several advantages over traditional coatings. Older varnishes were brushed on in more than a dozen steps and needed lengthy drying periods between coats. Quick-drying, spray-on Duco reduced the stages, drying time, labor costs, and storage space. Traditional varnishes chipped, cracked, crazed, and faded; Duco lacquer was almost invincible. It tolerated air, sun, rain, mud, dampness, heat, cold, salt water, bacteria, perspiration, dirt, soaps, and detergents. Most low-end finishes came in few colors, while Duco made available a rainbow of hues. Along with the annual model change and installment buying, the new finish added value to GM’s automotive line.

Even before True Blue’s debut, observers with their fingers on the pulse of the buyers’ market had been calling for colorful, mass-market cars that matched consumer tastes in fashion and interior design. The color revolution that swept across America in the 1920s built on transitions that had been under way for 75 years. During the gilded age English and German chemical companies introduced synthetic dyes that American mills used to make textiles in a variety of bright, permanent hues. Printers used chromolithography to generate colorful trade cards and posters for advertisers as well as decorative pictures for people’s homes. Even commercial streets touted new hues, as A&P supermarkets and Woolworth’s adopted bright red storefronts as part of chain-store branding. These novelties sharpened the eye and whetted the appetite for color.

True Blue’s success made the automotive and chemical industries take aesthetics seriously. Paint makers like the Egyptian Lacquer Manufacturing Company and Valentine and Company, determined not to be outdone by DuPont, introduced their own colorful paints, varnishes, and lacquers. In addition to automakers, local custom-shop painters adopted nitrocellulose finishes to refinish cars. Firms like Murphy Varnish and Ditzler Color developed chromatic aids to help custom painters understand the mysteries of color. Devices that simplified color selection democratized aesthetic decisions, which had long been the purview of artists and homemakers. These aids showed men, from top executives to shop mechanics, exactly what beauty could do for commerce and how its proper management could stimulate sales in the segmented automobile market.

The Duco Color Advisory Service

At first DuPont kept ahead by selling Duco to ever more car manufacturers and refinishing garages. By early 1925 its customers included five GM divisions and fourteen other automakers. That year DuPont sold more than one million gallons of Duco at five dollars each. Technically, Duco outstripped the competition, and the future looked bright. Yet DuPont managers who knew about color felt uneasy, knowing that the chemical company had to continually catch up with consumers’ growing sophistication.

In January 1925 two DuPont managers discussed the company’s need for practical advice on the psychology of colors as a means to anticipate major color fads. DuPont took a chromatic leap in October 1925 when it hired Towle and created the Duco Color Advisory Service to design the latest and most desirable color combinations for the auto industry. Born in Brooklyn, Towle had studied painting at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League. During World War I he put his art training to good use as a member of the U.S. Army’s celebrated Camouflage Corps. Afterward he adapted to the burgeoning world of advertising, working sequentially as art director for three New York agencies: H. K. McCann, Frank Seaman, and Campbell-Ewald. At Seaman he also served as the executive in charge of the DuPont account and as copy executive for Cadillac, Oldsmobile, La Salle, and Pontiac—all GM divisions.

In the 1920s large New York ad agencies billed themselves as full-service companies prepared to help clients conceptualize campaigns, write copy, create artwork, design products, stimulate publicity, and conduct consumer research. Their art departments showed clients how to capitalize on color’s appeal in print advertisements and product designs. In this capacity, as Towle would later recall in an annual report, he “first worked on color with the automotive industry back in 1924,” when he was “the only color engineer calling on the automobile trade.” The painter-turned-artdirector seemed like a perfect fit with DuPont’s plans to rationalize the inchoate sphere of color.