I never ran short of things to do as a kid, and rarely felt bored. Beyond the puzzles, games, and toys that I enjoyed, I had one activity that I truly cherished—coloring. Like many children, I was introduced to arts and crafts at an early age. Although the crafts part never really took, I developed a strong interest in the arts side of things. While my works of art would never have stood in comparison to the output of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, or Rembrandt, I felt proud of my creations, whether they involved drawing and coloring free-style or working within the confines of the line art of a coloring book.
Memories of my coloring book days resurfaced as I consulted Collectible Coloring Books by Dian Zillner in the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong. I learned that McLoughlin Brothers published the first coloring book—The Little Folks Painting Book by Kate Greenaway—in 1880. The Little Folks Painting Book opens, “The need of a cheap, and at same time interesting and sensible Book of Pictures for Children, to try their skill at painting has long been felt. We have thought it best to make the book without reading matter in order to give a greater number of pictures.” Thus began the mass-produced coloring book concept that later inspired other children’s book publishers such as Saalfield Publishing Co. and Whitman Publishing Company.
Although coloring books were originally meant to be used with paints, the commercial production of crayons in the late 19th century and early 20th century by companies such as Binney & Smith and American Crayon Company provided a more user-friendly, less messy, and more portable means for children to color. Over the years, coloring books shifted away from letters of the alphabet, numbers, and other educational themes to more playful images. Beginning in the 1940s, they took a more commercial tone with illustrations of licensed characters, celebrities, and holiday themes. By the 1970s, coloring books targeting an adult audience had infiltrated the market, including those based on political satire.
My personal favorites were the giant-sized coloring books that stood almost two feet high. The only way to really color in those involved laying them down on the floor and spreading out your crayons, markers, or colored pencils by your side. With such expanses to fill in, they provided hours of enjoyment. I still have a coloring book—a contemporary one featuring Spider-Man—that I keep around for visits from my four-year-old nephew. Although he hasn’t yet grasped the concept of coloring between the lines, I love watching him use the monochromatic approach. It doesn’t matter if Spider-Man is supposed to be blue and red; my nephew colors him green, and that’s just fine by me.