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10 Colorful Facts About Coloring Books

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. THE MODERN COLORING BOOK IS THANKS TO A FAMOUS CHILDREN'S ILLUSTRATOR.

Little Folks' Playtime Painting Book, circa 1898. via Amazon

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 has explained before, 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.

From THE EXECUTIVE COLORING BOOK by Marcie Hans, Dennis Altman and Martin A. Cohen,
to be published on March 28, 2017 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Marcie Hans, Dennis Altman and Martin A. Cohen.

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 is getting 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 '60s wasn’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 and Harry Potter to Game of Thrones and 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. …AND YOU CAN EVEN CREATE ONE 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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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