Kids and adults alike are drawn to coloring books for the fun, creative outlet they provide. Although adult coloring books are currently a trendy, bestselling genre, coloring books have a vibrant history—they’ve been around since the 1880s! So grab your colored pencils (or crayons, if they're more your style) and check out these 10 facts about coloring books.
1. WE HAVE A FAMOUS CHILDREN'S ILLUSTRATOR TO THANK FOR THE MODERN COLORING BOOK.
The coloring book has a surprisingly long history. Laura E. Wasowicz, curator of children’s literature at the American Antiquarian Society, told Mental Floss that "the earliest coloring books in our collection were produced in Germany and published in Philadelphia by John Weik & Co." around 1858. But the real ancestor of the modern coloring book is generally agreed to be British illustrator Kate Greenaway. Born in 1846, Greenaway became internationally recognized as a children’s book illustrator (and is now memorialized with the Kate Greenaway Medal for "distinguished illustration in a book for children").
Sometime in the late 1870s, she teamed up with publisher Cassell Petter & Galpin for The ‘Little Folks’ Painting Book, a reference to a children’s magazine that Cassell Petter & Galpin published. In some cross-promotion, any child who sent in their colored books to a competition the Little Folks magazine was holding could win money and medals, and the books themselves would go to the Children’s Hospitals to "[provide] for the amusement of little ones during their weary hours in the hospital." Several more of these books were published over the following years, some with similar contests.
So why were these books so influential? Thank lax copyright laws. As Wasowicz explained to Vox, American publisher the McLoughlin Brothers took Greenaway’s illustrations and published them in books for the American audience, almost certainly without her permission. These were the books that became massive hits and helped create a new genre. And later this year the Antiquarian Society will be hosting an exhibition on the McLoughlins’ dominance of late 19th-century picture books—thanks in part to copying British works.
2. EARLY COLORING BOOKS WERE MEANT TO EDUCATE CHILDREN.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reform movements in children’s education helped to shift popular attitudes about the role of education in achieving social progress. Coloring books became an interactive tool that parents gave to their kids to educate and entertain them, in hopes of giving them an advantage in life. During this time, the cost of books (and paper) also decreased, which made coloring books accessible to more children and families than ever before. Some companies that sold consumer goods, such as shoes and paint, even gave free, promotional coloring books to parents with every purchase.
3. THE FIRST ADULT COLORING BOOK MOCKED CORPORATE CULTURE.
Published in 1961 by three advertising executives, The Executive Coloring Book was the first coloring book aimed at adults. Featuring drawings and captions depicting a businessman getting ready for work ("This is me. I am an executive. Executives are important. They go to important offices and do important things. Color my underwear important."), the book satirizes and mocks the monotony, conformity, and austerity inherent in corporate workplaces. For example, the book comments on the corporate dress code—like the proliferation of gray suits—as well as the pills that some employees took to combat the depression and ennui of early '60s workplaces. (The original book got a full reprint in March 2017, in case you or someone you know is suffering from cubicle syndrome.)
4. THE 1960S SAW A PROLIFERATION OF ADULT COLORING BOOKS.
After The Executive Coloring Book’s publication, adult coloring books became trendy. Many of these books satirized societal expectations, political extremism, social movements, the Soviet Union, communism, President John F. Kennedy, and mental illness. Rather than actually color in the drawings in these books, most adults reportedly bought and read the books for a laugh. By the early 1970s, the trend of subversive, satirical coloring books for adults was over.
5. BARBRA STREISAND CAPITALIZED ON THEIR POPULARITY.
"For those who fancy coloring books ..." In 1962 and 1963, singer Barbra Streisand released two versions of a song called "My Coloring Book." Capitalizing on the contemporaneous popularity of adult coloring books, Streisand sang about a breakup through the lens of a coloring book. "Crayons ready? ... Begin to color me / These are the eyes that watched him as he walked away / Color them gray / This is the heart that thought he would always be true / Color it blue." Though Streisand sang the song on the late-night circuit, the song never charted, but it was later covered by Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, and Kristin Chenoweth.
6. THEY HAVE A LONG HISTORY OF PROMOTING POLITICAL VIEWS.
The 1960s weren't the only time period that cartoonists used adult coloring books to lampoon political figures and promote counterculture or fringe views. More recently, creators of coloring books have used the books to comment on events and figures in contemporary politics. You can find coloring books about the death of Osama bin Laden and the Tea Party (complete with drawings of Sarah Palin and text about the evils of political correctness), as well as coloring books devoted to former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and President Donald Trump.
7. RESEARCHERS CLAIM THE BOOKS CAN LOWER STRESS AND ANXIETY.
According to researchers and art therapists, adults who color in coloring books may experience a variety of therapeutic benefits. A 2005 study (and a 2012 replication study) concluded that people who colored in mandalas—complex geometric figures frequently seen in Hinduism and Buddhism—experienced lower levels of anxiety than people who simply colored on a blank piece of paper. By focusing on different shapes and patterns in a structured way, people who color can shut off negative thoughts, becoming calmer. The study concluded that like meditation, the act of coloring patterns can let the brain rest, decrease anxiety, and encourage mindfulness.
8. DIGITAL COLORING BOOKS ARE A THING.
If you assumed that all coloring books are tangible items, think again. Plenty of websites offer digital coloring books, allowing users to choose an image, pick a stylus tool, and decide how to color it. But digital coloring books can be more high tech than a glorified Microsoft Paint program. Disney offers Disney Color and Play, an augmented reality coloring book app that lets you use your smartphone or tablet to transform 2D images of Disney characters into a colorful, digital 3D experience.
9. TODAY, YOU CAN FIND JUST ABOUT ANY TYPE OF COLORING BOOK.
Whether you have a hankering to color in drawings based on pop culture, politics, literature, or sports, there’s probably a coloring book for you. Pop culture-themed options include everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Game of Thrones to Breaking Bad. And if you want a more involved coloring experience, interactive coloring books let you write your own story, solve puzzles, or scan pages that you’ve colored and animate them online.
10. YOU CAN EVEN CREATE YOUR OWN COLORING BOOK USING YOUR OWN PHOTOS.
The only thing better than taking a selfie is coloring in your selfie! Thanks to Color Me Book, you can order personalized coloring books that feature your own photos. After you upload your images, a team of designers hand-trace them and turn them into pages of a customized coloring book—one that's perfect for those impossible-to-shop-for family members.