CLOSE

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
The Ohio State University Archives
arrow
Excerpt
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
chartaediania, eBay
arrow
#TBT
The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
chartaediania, eBay
chartaediania, eBay

In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
Chartaediania, eBay

Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios