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A brief history of the great American coloring book

Coloring books are trendy. But they're a lot older than you think.

A child coloring.
A child coloring.
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Today, adult coloring books are a hot trend, giving grownups around the world some precious crayon and colored pencil time. There are ones that will soothe you (Stress Relieving Patterns), teach you (Art of Nature Coloring Book), and even make you laugh (Unicorns Are Jerks).

But most of us don't know where coloring books came from in the first place. To find out, I spoke with Laura E. Wasowicz. She's the curator of children's literature at the American Antiquarian Society, and she shared what we know about the coloring book's beginnings.

The origins of the coloring book

A half-colored page from one of the first coloring books, The Little Folks Painting Book

A half-colored page from one of the first coloring books, The Little Folks Painting Book.

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The first coloring books were around years before the crayon became mainstream. (The company that became Crayola, for example, didn't start making recognizable crayons until 1902.) That meant these early coloring books were called "painting books" and were usually illustrated with watercolors.

Wasowicz has found examples in the Antiquarian Society's collection that go back to the 1850s, and there are art instruction books from even earlier. The circa-1880 Little Folks Painting Book is generally considered the first popular coloring book.

So it wasn't until the 1870s and 1880s that the coloring book became a mainstream part of childhood, and it took a range of factors to make it a hit.

Why the coloring book got so big

Kids hard at work coloring, as seen in the preface to the Little Folks Coloring Book.

Kids hard at work coloring, as seen in the preface to the Little Folks Coloring Book.

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Most people attribute the rise of coloring books to a single publisher, the McLoughlin Brothers. Though others like Milton Bradley (yes, the game guy) promoted children's books, McLoughlin was key. Amy Weinstein wrote about early coloring books in the gorgeous photo book Once Upon a Time: Illustrations from Fairytales, Fables, Primer, Pop-Ups, and other Children's Books, and she writes that if the children's book movement was a revolution, then "John McLoughlin, Jr. (1827–1905) may be considered the movement’s great American general."

But it wasn't just one company that made coloring happen. Big driving trends range from societal to technological, and include:

  • A revolution in printing. "First is the development of lithography," Wasowicz says. "It was as revolutionary as computer printing is today." Invented in 1796, lithography became mainstream and made its way to America from Europe in the 1850s, becoming perfected in the 1870s. It allowed for easier printing than with a wooden block or copper plate, as well as the ability to reproduce thousands of images quickly and easily. As Europeans perfected the process, it made for amazing color books — and relatively cheap "painting books" like the Little Folks Painting Book. Cheaper paper also helped.
  • A free-for-all in publishing. One of the reasons it's so hard to track down the truth about coloring books is that in the absence of modern copyright law, especially internationally, publishers blatantly stole one another's books and illustrations. That was bad for artists and the original publishers, but kept the books affordable for many families.

    For example, Wasowicz describes how the author of one children's book, The Baby's Opera, discovered his book had been copied by the McLoughlin brothers when he saw a version with completely different colors.

    And if there's any landmark artist of early children's illustration, it's Kate Greenaway, whose work included coloring books. It's uncertain if she allowed the McLoughlin Brothers to use her illustrations in versions of the Little Folks Painting Book or the Little Folks Nature Painting Book (seen below), but the images were most likely stolen.

    A Kate Greenaway illustration circa 1880

    A Kate Greenaway illustration circa 1880.

    The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

  • A change in education. Wasowicz notes that children's literature always had a strong profit motive, but some demand came from a more high-minded place, reflecting changing views of education and kids.

    As intellectuals like Friedrich Fröbel (the inventor of kindergarten) became more influential, people started encouraging children to be creative. "There was a reenergizing of art and how art should be taught," Wasowicz says. "With the coloring books, there's more freedom."

    This is reflected in other books of the time, which experimented wildly with interactive forms including paper dolls and books with tracing paper attached, which both went mainstream in the same era.

Coloring books today, for all ages

One of today's popular adult coloring books

One of today's popular adult coloring books.

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After the rise of the coloring book in the 1880s, it was only a matter of time for them to become a mainstay of childhood. The mass-popularization of crayons in the 1900s made that easier, and by 1922, newspapers were publishing drawings designed for coloring.

As kids grew up, coloring books eventually grew up with them. Dover's Antique Automobiles, published in 1970, is often called the first "adult coloring book," and since then, these books have expanded to include pop culture references and occasional naughtiness. Kate Greenaway never could have imagined coloring in Rick Ross (in 2013's Bun B's Rapper Coloring and Activity Book). Today, adult coloring is so popular people are asking therapists for their insights into the trend.

Yet despite the differences between today's adult coloring books and the originals, even modern versions would be recognizable to kids of the 1880s. After all, whether it's Mother Goose or Nas, a coloring book is still just a drawing, waiting for you to make it complete.