Coloring Books

Stay within the lines

A coloring book is a type of book containing line art to which people are intended to add color using crayons, colored pencils, marker pens, paint, or other artistic media. Traditional coloring books and coloring pages are printed on paper or cards.

Some coloring books have perforated edges so their pages can be removed from the books and used as individual sheets. Others may include a storyline and so are intended to be left intact. 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.

Paint books and coloring books emerged in the United States as part of the “democratization of art” process, inspired by a series of lectures by British artist Joshua Reynolds[1], and the works of Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi[2] and his student Friedrich Fröbel[3]. The first coloring book published in 1879 and illustrated by Kate Greenaway was called the “Little Folks Painting Book”.

Back then they were called “painting books” because crayons weren’t made yet. Crayons didn’t become available until 1903 when the first box of crayons was developed.  This book invited one to paint the illustrations of songs and tales about the harms of waking up late, being selfish, or playing a trick on your well-mannered cousin.

The last story of the book is particularly revealing. It is about a brother and sister who wish to fly away from their boring, secluded life and are magically held captive on flying carpets that take them on a journey that never ends, a Dantesque hell of punishment that comes with the warning: “Never be discontented, never wish for anything you cannot have.” Doesn’t this sum up what coloring books are about: Stay within the lines?

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. McLoughlin Bros., Inc. was a New York publishing firm active between 1858 and 1920. The company was a pioneer in color printing technologies in children’s books. The company specialized in retellings or bowdlerizations of classic stories for children.

The artistic and commercial roots of the McLoughlin firm were first developed by John McLoughlin, Jr. (1827–1905) who made his younger brother Edmund McLoughlin (1833 -1889) a partner in 1855.

By 1886, the firm published a wide range of items, including cheap chapbooks, large folio picture books, linen books, puzzles, games, paper soldiers, and paper dolls. Many of the earliest and most valuable board games in America were produced by the McLoughlin Brothers of New York. In 1920 the corporation was sold to Milton Bradley & Company.

The adult coloring book trend has spread nationwide, with some even popping up on bestseller lists. With the countless health benefits of coloring for adults, it might be time to pull out the crayons, colored pencils, and markers! Coloring has the ability to relax the fear center of your brain, the amygdala. It induces the same state as meditating by reducing the thoughts of a restless mind.

This generates mindfulness and quietness, which allows your mind to get some rest after a long day at work. Coloring goes beyond being a fun activity for relaxation. It requires the two hemispheres of the brain to communicate. While logic helps us stay inside the lines, choosing colors generates a creative thought process. We know we get a better night’s sleep when avoiding engaging with electronics at night because exposure to the emitted light reduces your levels of the sleep hormone, melatonin.

Coloring is a relaxing and electronic-free bedtime ritual that won’t disturb your level of melatonin. Coloring requires you to focus, but not so much that it’s stressful. It opens up your frontal lobe, which controls organizing and problem-solving, and allows you to put everything else aside and live in the moment, generating focus.

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. Whether you have the 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. 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.

  1. Sir Joshua Reynolds (July 16, 1723 – February 23, 1792) was an English painter who specialized in portraits. John Russell said he was one of the major European painters of the 18th century. He promoted the “Grand Style” in painting which depended on the idealization of the imperfect. He was the founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts and was knighted by George III in 1769. [Back]
  2. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (January 12, 1746 – February 17, 1827) was a Swiss pedagogue and educational reformer who exemplified Romanticism in his approach. He founded several educational institutions both in German- and French-speaking regions of Switzerland and wrote many works explaining his revolutionary modern principles of education. His motto was “Learning by head, hand, and heart”. Thanks to Pestalozzi, illiteracy in 18th-century Switzerland was overcome almost completely by 1830. [Back]
  3. Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel or Froebel (April 21, 1782 – June 21, 1852) was a German pedagogue, a student of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who laid the foundation for modern education based on the recognition that children have unique needs and capabilities. He created the concept of the kindergarten and coined the word, which soon entered the English language as well. He also developed educational toys known as Froebel gifts. [Back]

Further Reading


Laura Miller Artist
Elle Blog
Mental Floss
Top Coloring Pages

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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