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

Ketcham’s first step was to create the Automobile Color Index, a monthly quantitative analysis of Duco sales. This hybrid forecasting tool owed its analytical rigor to Towle and GM and its respect for fashion to Cheney. Emulating Cheney, Ketcham divided Duco colors into three groups: standard, style, and staple. Beginning in the summer of 1929 Ketcham tracked these three groups and measured the rise and fall of color families, such as reds, browns, and yellows. His research revealed how the Great Depression affected consumers’ buying habits. By 1933 black was back in business, a major challenger to blue. The Automobile Color Index summarized these trends in elaborate charts and graphs and showcased the statistical expertise of DuPont’s new chief colorist.

Next Ketcham unveiled DuPont’s full-fledged tribute to color engineering: Duco Calibrated Colors, a palette of 290 carefully selected hues. By 1932 American paint companies had 11,500 different automotive colors in their inventories. There was no logic behind this growth, which stemmed from a lack of planning. Many lacquer makers still offered colors that no one had ordered for several years. But the bigger problem lay in manufacturing practices. Some producers found it difficult to control chemical reactions in their factories, generating “as many as 80 variations of one original color.” Harried automakers exacerbated the problem when they accepted the off-color releases. Things also got worse when car companies switched paint suppliers, which unsuccessfully tried to match competitors’ colors. The end result was an increasing number of mismatches.

In creating Duco Calibrated Colors, Ketcham adopted the Munsell Color Company’s practical system of color measure to describe hue, value, and chroma. Whereas Towle subscribed to a psychology of color, Ketcham stressed hard facts. Writing for the refinishing trade, he described one two-toned harmony simply and directly: “Allover color a light maroon. The character of such a maroon can be improved through the use of light, bright blue green as a striping accent. Maroon is in reality a low value of red. Blue green is the complement of red. The use of a color with its complement tends to intensify both colors.” This language of efficiency had market value. Ketcham’s use of the Munsell system reflected Duco’s newfound awareness that color could be tamed, controlled, and packaged.

Ironically, Ketcham’s simplification plan sat squarely in industrial arts, where Albert H. Munsell did his pioneering research. During the 1920s the Munsell Research Laboratory and the Munsell Color Company pursued photometric research with the Bureau of Standards and publicized its system among schools and businesses. Between 1928 and 1930 Walter M. Scott, once the chief chemist for Cheney, worked as service director for the Munsell Color Company. Scott had used the Munsell system at the Cheney silk mill, which led to his enthusiastic promotion of it as an aesthetic tool for business. By the early 1930s Munsell’s practical method of color measurement was fast becoming the accepted standard in the industrial arts, and Ketcham proved wise to adopt it for DuPont.

In the 10 years between Towle’s arrival and Ketcham’s departure, DuPont experienced a remarkable transformation in color practice. Their temperaments and techniques differed, but both held common assumptions and recognized the fundamental responsibility of the colorist in the buyers’ market. “It is just as costly to be too far ahead of the color trend as it is unprofitable to lag behind it,” wrote Ketcham in the journal Industrial Finishing. “So, the manufacturer or dealer who wishes to meet markets when they arrive does well to determine in advance the public choice in colors.” Seasoned colorists thus learned to take their cues from the marketplace, whether watching ladies ogle Paris gowns or analyzing the sales of blue Buicks. They were, in short, “obliged to keep abreast of the consciousness of the color consumer.”