Snowy Paint-by-Number Scenes

Two winter Paint-by-Number scenes join my collection of snowmen every January. Shaded tree trunks are plastered with white. A wan sun casts shadows of bare branches on the ground and roof of small russet buildings along a stream. 

Somber green fir trees are background for calm greys and greens, peaceful shades of whites and blues. I’ve always enjoyed January because of its restful hush.

On the back of one of the pictures is a photo of me, sitting at the table–at 41 Airways Trailer Court, Mountain Home, Idaho–painting one of the scenes. Yes, a trailer court. Airways Trailer Court. 

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While Guy was stationed at the nearby Air Force Base (where F-4 Phantom jets were based), our first rented trailer was only 8 feet wide ($65 per month), just wide enough for a couch to sit at one end. The other end was the bedroom. I had to stand on the bed to make the bed. How thankful we were when a “ten-wide” became available ($75 rent).

I was invited to a weekly “knitting” club, a mix of Air Force wives and local women. A few people knitted, but they also did everything from working on quilts to licking and pasting stamps in those little S&H Green Stamps.


 I worked on a quilt, crocheted an afghan, embroidered, knitted, and learned how to do genealogy.

I don’t remember buying the Paint-by-Numbers kit, but found my 1968 diary. Yes, I keep a diary. This one is a small spiral notebook, but I crammed a lot of little details in it. 1968

We paid only $5 income tax that year. My folks sent us Drew’s Chocolates from my hometown of Dexter, Iowa, for Valentine’s Day. The North Koreans attacked and captured the USS Pueblo in January, and didn’t free the crew until December. Our landlady pierced my ears. Sister Gloria graduated from ISU and got a job teaching art in Creston.

Dad grew a beard for Dexter’s Centennial. The first U.S. adult heart transplant recipient died. There were Peace Talks in Paris about Vietnam.  Helen Keller died. RFK was shot and killed.

A stray Cocker spaniel, Muffy, with an underbite, adopted us. He also bit the dog catcher. I developed terrible allergies. Turned out to be Russian Thistle–tumbleweeds. But only when in bloom.

Guy got a leave from the Air Force Base so we headed back to Iowa in our white 1963 Chevy Biscayne, turquoise inside, via Craters of the Moon, Yellowstone, and the Black Hills. Anxious to get home for the first time in a year and a half, we didn’t stop to see much. We visited our three remaining grandmothers, a couple of great aunts, as well as our parents and siblings and cousins.

Because I’d gotten started on genealogy in Idaho, grandmothers had already filled out charts with names and dates. While we were home, they shared pictures and stories with us. We visited several cemeteries. A pile lumber shifted and hurt Dad’s back while we were there, so Guy took over chores one week. We celebrated our vacation by enjoying the “Dinning Room” (according to the sign above the doorway) at Winterset’s Gold Buffet.

Our route back to Idaho wended through Rocky Mountain National Park and Salt Lake City.

Former President Eisenhower spent time in the hospital, and Richard Nixon was elected president. We met another airman and his wife, Mel and Jackie DeGroot of Dike, Iowa, which was just a few miles down the road from where we were married in Cedar Falls–the very next day after their wedding. Grandma Wilson sent us a box of Drew’s Chocolates from Dexter, Iowa, for Christmas. 

Fifty Years Ago

Apollo 8, the second manned spaceflight mission in the Apollo space program, was launched that on December 21st, and became the first manned (three astronauts) spacecraft to leave Earth orbit, reach the moon (in three days), orbit it (ten times), and return safely to Earth. They also made a Christmas Eve TV broadcast during which they read Genesis 1: 1-10. It was the most watched TV program ever to that date. We had a small black-and-white TV, so watched the history.

It was while the three astronauts were in space that I created those Paint-by-Number scenes. They were my Christmas gift from Guy. The pictures moved back to Iowa with me while he was in Vietnam, then to Colorado for five years, and back to Iowa ever since.

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Real artists dislike Paint-by-Numbers, or PBNs, but they’ve been around since the 1950s. The first ones were designed by artist Dan Robbins, who was a paint company employee. It became a craze. People who painted them were called “fillers-inners of numbered pictures” by Life magazine. But one year President Eisenhower gave PBN kits to the White House staff as Christmas presents.

According to Dan Robbins’ book, Whatever Happened to Paint-by-Numbers?, about what it took to put these kits into production and market them, as early as the mid-50s and the early-60s they began to attract attention as an American icon, having “historical significance.”

These days people even collect PBN paintings, and the National Museum of American History once  hosted an exhibition of them.

Here you can visit the Paint-by-Number museum

My PBN snow scenes will never end up in a museum, but I’m content to enjoy them every winter, and remember fondly the historic December I worked on them way out in Mountain Home, Idaho.

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  1. Such a host of interesting memories. I too keep a diary (which turns out to be very useful on occasions) and loved paint-by-numbers!

    • I wish I had journaled back then, but I’d probably never get around to reading them again. Diaries also solve arguments about when things happen, and trigger memories! I’m surprised that I haven’t done more paint by numbers. I guess I preferred working with yarn and fabric.

  2. PBN are now in great demand in antique shops and thrift stores!! Diaries were the original Google!!

  3. Wow! This post brought back some memories of my own early days. Living with four other students in a narrow little mobile home for a short time while in college. Each of us had different schedules and hardly ever saw each other, except in passing. Living VERY near Seymour Johnson AFB our first year of marriage/teaching and having F-4 Phantoms and B-52s flying over our house. My parents doing PBNs during the winter when it was too cold for Daddy to go to his masonry-laying job. Mother saving S&H Green Stamps and the stacks of them she took to the redemption store in Knoxville. Thanks for sparking the memories!

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