|Women's Reserve Camouflage Corps (1918|
H(arold) Ledyard Towle was an American artist and industrial colorist, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1890. After studying art at Pratt Institute, and at the Art Students League (under Frank Vincent DuMond and William Merritt Chase), he embarked on what he thought would be a career as a painter of portraits and landscapes. However, as he later admitted, his experiences as a camouflage artist during World War I changed many of his attitudes, including how he looked at art.
During WWI, Towle was a camouflage instructor in the 71st Infantry Regiment of the New York State National Guard. In that capacity, he provided camouflage training for troops who were preparing to fight on the battlefields in Europe. He also taught a course about camouflage at the Columbia University Teachers College. Before the war ended, he himself shipped off to France as a machine-gunner and camoufleur at the Front.
While still in New York, he also took on an unusual task, which led to a flood of news articles. In early 1918, approval was made to establish a Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps, and Towle was designated as the instructor for a unit of about thirty-five to fifty civilian women volunteers. The training was largely conducted out of doors in New York, on the grounds of the Billings Estate, which is now the museum The Cloisters.
|Full-page article on Towle's women camoufleurs (July 1918)|
Towle’s course for women was not only about camouflage, since it also offered training in military drill, boxing, and pistol and rifle marksmanship. Because (or so it was commonly said at the time) women were naturally inclined toward sewing, one of their primary challenges was to make hooded camouflaged “observation suits,” with which they could blend in with natural settings. There was no shortage of news stories about the unit’s activities (enlivened by photographs, along with appropriate quotes from Lieutenant Towle). In July 1918, there were widely published stories about these women camoufleurs (jokingly referred to then as “camoufleuses”) because they had applied a camouflage scheme to a scaled-down wooden battleship (called the USS Recruit) in the middle of New York City in Union Square. In fact, it was not a genuine ship, but a landlocked replica built in 1917 for use as a novelty recruiting station. It was someone’s suggestion that it would be even more novel, generate more publicity, and encourage more recruits to join if its surface was totally covered in brightly-colored, abstract shapes (in “dazzle camouflage”). The women camoufleurs in Towle’s course were chosen to accomplish this. They did the whole thing overnight—and it was the talk of the town the next morning.
When Captain Towle returned from the war, surely he was discouraged to find (like others of his generation) that American Impressionism was no longer in vogue, having been swept aside by Modernism that had begun with the Armory Show in 1913. Beginning in 1919, he worked for the US Treasury Department in Washington DC, in connection with the Victory Liberty Loan Committee, then moved on to positions at several advertising agencies, including one at which he was in charge of the DuPont Company account.
A breakthrough in his career took place in 1925, when he was hired by DuPont (working in cooperation with General Motors in Detroit) to establish a Duco Color Advisory Service in New York. As documented in a book by Regina Lee Blaszczyk on the history of color use in industrial production (The Color Revolution), this enterprising artist-turned-camoufleur became phenomenally influential at DuPont, General Motors (where he worked with other former camoufleurs, and with Harvey J. Earl), and Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, as industry’s first and foremost “color engineer.”
Towle moved from New York to Detroit in July of 1928, when General Motors launched an “art and color section” and appointed Towle its “chief color expert.” He talked about his career transition in news articles at the time. “I went into the war,” he explained, “thinking art belonged to the chosen few. I came out knowing that it belonged to every urchin in the street. Working on wartime camouflage problems taught one how to use color with a purpose. I saw the futility of painting portraits to collect dust in museums, and turned to camouflaging industry and its products of everyday life.” His disdain for the art world is evident in his statement that “The automobile manufacturers and plumbing magnates are rivaling the Medici of old as patrons of art, and the resources of modern corporations are unlimited.”
In Blaszczyk’s book, she concludes that Towle was “America’s top automotive and paint colorist.” In the 1928 news article (cited earlier), he is described as "a pioneer in the movement which has brought lavender tea boxes, turquoise alarm clocks and a host of vivid motor cars…," a hue guru who “is now studying the 'color consciousness' of each section of the country, hoping to perfect hues which will satisfy the particular desires of each district."
In December 1934, Towle joined the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company as director of its Division of Creative Design and Color. In 1941, he was interviewed in a news article about his proposal to set up a Pittsburgh civilian camouflage committee, for the purpose of determining which facilities in that city were most vulnerable to attacks by enemy aircraft, and “to design methods either to hide these places by breaking up their shadows or by making them harder to hit.”
From 1945 through 1950, Towle was a lecturer in Business Administration at the College of William and Mary. He died on November 8, 1973. His papers are housed in the Manuscript and Archives Department at the Haley Museum and Library in Wilmington DE.
Roy R. Behrens, False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2002.
_________, Camoupedia: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2009.
_________ ed., Ship Shape: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2012.
Regina Lee Blaszczyk, The Color Revolution. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2012.
“Color Engineer Sees New Epoch of Vivid Utility” in Waterloo (Iowa) Courier, April 10, 1929, p. 14.
“Raid Defense Gets Impetus in Pittsburgh” in Sandusky (Ohio) Register and News. September 16, 1941.
H. Ledyard Towle, “What the American ‘Camouflage’ Signifies” in New York Times. June 3, 1917, p. 14.
_________, “Projecting the Automobile into the Future” in Society for Automotive Engineering Journal, July 29, 1931.
_________, “Here It Comes” in American Magazine, September 1932.
“Ledyard Towle” (obituary), in New York Times, November 11, 1973, p. 73.