10 Colorful Facts About Coloring Books

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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. WE HAVE A FAMOUS CHILDREN'S ILLUSTRATOR TO THANK FOR THE MODERN COLORING BOOK.

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 explained to Vox, 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
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 got 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 1960s weren'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 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.

10. YOU CAN EVEN CREATE YOUR OWN COLORING BOOK 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.

The Mona Lisa Does Not Actually Cause the ‘Mona Lisa Effect’

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? By a certain Leonardo da Vinci painting, perhaps? Scientists call it the Mona Lisa effect: the sense that the eyes of a figure in a painting or photograph are following you as you move around the room. But according to a new study in the journal i-Perception, the eyes in the Mona Lisa painting don’t actually fit the criteria.

The Mona Lisa effect is real—scholars have documented the phenomenon for nearly 2000 years. The effect doesn’t just depend on the direction of the painted figure’s gaze. The figure’s head position in the painting and the slant of the picture itself create specific geometric conditions in space, distorting the viewer’s perception of the painted person’s stare. The sensation can occur no matter where the viewer is in relation to the portrait.

Until now, according to researchers at Bielefeld University in Germany, no one had tested the effect on the Mona Lisa itself. Gernot Horstmann and Sebastian Loth, members of the university’s Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology, designed a study in which 24 participants viewed 15 different sections of the Mona Lisa painting on a monitor. A simple ruler was placed in front of the monitor, and each viewer marked the spot where they thought the gaze landed on the ruler, which indicated its angle.

An angle of zero meant a straight-at-the-viewer look. A slightly sideward gaze toward the viewer’s ear, corresponding to a 5-degree angle, would still prompt the sense of being watched. "But as the angle increases, you would not have the impression of being looked at,” Horstmann said in a statement.

After analyzing about 2000 assessments from participants, the researchers found that viewers felt the gaze of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece to be at an angle of 15.4 degrees—looking off to their right-hand side, rather than directly at them.

“It is clear that the term Mona Lisa effect is nothing but a misnomer,” Horstmann said. But even though this particular phenomenon has been demystified, people's obsession with the painting will surely continue.

11 Secrets of Perfumers

Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

Perfumers are a rare breed. These half-artist, half-scientist hybrids undergo rigorous training, memorize the smells of hundreds of ingredients, and spend decades honing their craft—which might explain why there are reportedly more astronauts than perfumers in the world, according to the BBC.

For many, the job isn't merely about peddling bottles of sweet-smelling stuff to consumers; the goal is to convey an emotion, create a beautiful moment, or jog a childhood memory. To find out what it takes to create top-notch fragrances, Mental Floss spoke with three perfumers who broke into the industry through very different paths.

1. Perfumers can identify hundreds of ingredients by smell alone.

A large perfume organ with hundreds of fragrance bottles
Mandy Aftel's perfume organ
By Joel Bernstein // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Master perfumers are sometimes called a nez—the French word for "nose"—for good reason. They commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose. Many perfumers can also tell an essential oil from a synthetic material, which is no small feat. “You’re talking maybe 200 essential oils and about 1500 synthetic materials,” Jodi Wilson, a classically trained perfumer who now works as a fragrance sales manager for Orchidia Fragrances in Chicago, says of the ingredients perfumers typically employ.

The trick, she says, is to associate each smell with a distinct memory. “The more experiences you have in your life, the more memories you create, and that’s really how you remember these raw materials when you first start studying, because it reminds you of your grandmother or a flower shop or a bakery or a certain gum,” Wilson tells Mental Floss. (The link between smell and memory has actually been proven by science—one 2018 study by neurobiologists at the University of Toronto revealed that the brain not only stores information about certain scents, but also memories of when and where you first encountered them.)

2. Having a good sense of smell isn't enough to make a good perfumer.

Many perfumers have a heightened sense of smell. Jersey City-based perfumer Christopher Brosius, who founded the rebellious fragrance brand CB I Hate Perfume (a reference to his distaste for most commercial fragrances) is one of them. He realized just how strong his nose was while working briefly as a New York City cab driver—he had to roll the window down every time an “offensive” perfume wafted in his direction and made his stomach churn.

However, many aspiring perfumers mistakenly believe that a “good nose” will get them far. “That’s like saying that if you have 20/20 vision you’re the next Picasso,” Brosius tells Mental Floss. “A keen nose is very useful, but at the end of the day I have met perfumers who were extremely talented who didn’t smell anything more sharply than anybody else. They just had the capacity to think in a different way about what they were doing with scent and combining it in unique and interesting ways.” More important than a good sense of smell is creativity, a natural talent for recognizing scents that work well together, and the “dedication to building a very particular base of knowledge and skill,” Brosius says.

3. France's Givaudan Perfumery School is the goal for many would-be top perfumers.

Jodi Wilson picks roses
Jodi Wilson picks roses for distillation while studying at the Roure Perfumery School (now called the Givaudan Perfumery School) in Grasse, France, during the 1991-92 academic year.
Courtesy of Jodi Wilson

Like many professional perfumers, Wilson was educated at what's now the Givaudan Perfumery School in France. Founded in 1946, it only accepts one or two promising students each year out of thousands of applicants—and sometimes none at all, if that year’s crop of candidates don’t live up to the school’s high standards. Former director Jean Guichard has said he hand-selected students based on their personality, talent, and motivations. “The perfumer should be a mixture between a scientist and a poet,” Guichard told the BBC. “When I meet people, I know if they have talent or not. I don’t want to have people who say, ‘I’m going to be a perfumer because they make a lot of money.’ That doesn’t interest me at all.” (And speaking of pay, Wilson says the starting salary for entry-level perfumers is about $45,000, but perfumers in New York City tend to start off a bit higher. It's not unheard of for the world's top perfumers to make six figures.)

The now-four-year Givaudan program is rigorous, but students don’t make a single perfume until after graduation. First, students have to memorize about 1500 raw materials, Wilson says. Next, they learn how to build accords, which are the fragrance notes (like rose or jasmine) that form the heart of a perfume. They move on to perfume schemas (the “skeleton” of a fine fragrance, which contains 10 to 12 materials) and also learn about the culture and history of perfume. “It takes a long time to learn all of that, and that’s what you’re doing all day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s intense,” Wilson says. If and when they graduate, they’ll have a job waiting for them at the Givaudan fragrance company, which is where they’ll learn how to make perfumes under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

4. perfume school isn’t the only way to break into the industry.

Mandy Aftel holding perfume blotters
Perfumer Mandy Aftel at work
By Foster Curry // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Brosius says “99.9 percent” of aspiring perfumers would benefit from attending a perfume school. However, he personally did things a little differently and learned the fundamentals of perfume-making by landing a job at Kiehl’s and completing the company’s in-house training program.

It’s even less common for a perfumer to be self-taught, but it’s not impossible. The latter camp includes Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, California, who dropped a fulfilling career in psychotherapy to pursue a budding passion for perfume-making. For information about natural materials, she turned to fragrance books from the early 1900s, before synthetic materials started to saturate the market. Now, her Aftelier Perfumes business uses hundreds of natural ingredients—no synthetics—to create unique fragrances, and she has a loyal clientele. Regardless of the career paths they took, all of the perfumers agreed that this career is “a continuous learning process,” as Aftel tells Mental Floss. Both Brosius and Wilson said it takes 20 to 25 years to truly master the art of perfume-making, and Aftel still calls herself a “beginner” after 30 years of working in this field.

5. Not all perfumers work with fine fragrances.

Fragrance is used in many different ways, some of which we encounter on a daily basis without realizing it. Some perfumers specialize in creating scents for “industrial application,” which could include anything from children’s toys to paint to fabric, Brosius says. In the case of toilet-bowl cleaners, cat litter, and asphalt, the goal is not necessarily to create a pleasant aroma; instead, the challenge is to mask an unpleasant one. However, many of the perfumers working on the industrial side have scientific backgrounds and tend to work for a chemical company rather than a perfume label, Wilson says.

6. Some of the materials perfumers work with are hazardous.

Some undiluted ingredients—such as cinnamon—can cause severe chemical burns if they get on one's skin. Brosius wears gloves and goggles while blending materials and says some ingredients in his studio come with a "do not open without authorization" label attached. He says, “We have a protocol here that if anything new comes in, it’s opened in specific parts of the building or even sometimes outside on the terrace so that we don’t have an accident where it’s like, ‘Oops I just spilled one single drop of aldehyde [an organic compound] and now the entire building is uninhabitable, although next week it will smell like ginger ale!”

7. They want you to know your aromatherapy lotion might not be made of rose, jasmine, or whatever the bottle claims it contains.

Labels can be deceptive. If you’re buying an “aromatherapy” lotion or shower gel that claims to have rose, sandalwood, or jasmine in it but costs $15, that’s a red flag. According to Wilson, these ingredients can cost many thousands of dollars per pound. Wilson says it’s far more likely that cheaper products contain just a drop or two of the natural oils advertised—for the sake of being able to list them on the label—plus a host of synthetic ingredients that mimic the smell.

8. They're not always working on fragrances they like.

Marketing is a huge part of the cost of the perfume, especially on the higher end; the perfume industry spent around $800 million on marketing in 2016, according to Bloomberg. “Ninety percent of the time, the cost of the juice in that bottle is fractional,” Brosius says.

Marketing demands are also one reason why perfumers don't always get to follow their nose—and their creativity. “Most perfumers who work at large houses are not so happy with their job all the time,” Brosius says. “For every fine fragrance they get to work on, they’re compelled to work on a ton of crap fragrances as well. Much of it is entirely dependent on the whim of the marketing company.”

Companies are also more risk-averse, Wilson says—and the perfumes themselves now aren’t always built to last. “It used to be that a ‘classic’ was considered to last for 20 years—so your Chanel 5 and things of that nature,” Wilson says. “Now, it’s very rare to have a perfume that stays around for even 10 years.”

9. The smell of puppies is impossible to replicate—but perfumers are trying.

A bottle of Soaked Earth accord from CB I Hate Perfume
Kevin O'Mara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brosius has taken on some ambitious projects over the years, including fragrances imitating the smells of snow and wet earth, but some scents are harder to capture than others. That’s because the aroma chemicals needed to replicate certain smells haven't been created yet. This can be said of gasoline, champagne and certain wines, and some animal smells. “Particularly with puppies and kittens, the molecules needed to accurately reproduce those smells don’t exist in the perfumer’s palette. You can’t solvent extract puppies and kittens for their smell," Brosius says, describing a method that involves applying a chemical solvent to a raw material—such as a flower—to extract its aroma.

However, he’s had success creating "a context that’s so strong that people are convinced that they’re smelling something that isn’t there," he says. For instance, his roast beef fragrance doesn’t contain roast beef or anything like it, but it does contain notes of parsley and black pepper. That scent in particular, and a few others like it, aren't meant to be worn on the body. Brosius says some of his fragrances are more like modern-day "smelling salts," where the goal is to revive you, in a sense, by relieving stress. "All you have to do is open the bottle, breathe in, and your system will automatically reset to calm," he says.

10. Perfumers sometimes work with whale poop.

A small bowl with ambergris in it
Peter Kaminski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perfume-makers work with some unusual ingredients, and ambergris is certainly at the top of the list. This rock-like material comes from the excrement of sperm whales and occasionally washes up on shore. Aftel is fortunate enough to have some on display at the olfactory history museum she operates, called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. To convert the solid mass of crushed up squid and cuttlefish bits into an aromatic oil, she had to mash it up with a mortar and pestle, then add alcohol, heat it, and let it age. So what does it smell like in liquid form? “Heaven,” Aftel says. “It’s just ambery and shimmery. It’s a miracle of transformation.” Besides, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick and it used to be a 17th-century ice cream flavor, so you know it has to be good.

11. They keep wool nearby to combat nose fatigue.

Wool is the olfactory equivalent of eating sorbet in between courses. If you’re smelling the same scent for a prolonged period of time, or sniffing too many perfumes in a row, your odor receptors will habituate and stop sending those signals to your brain. This is officially called olfactory fatigue, and it explains why you might stop noticing a smell after a couple of minutes.

“If you smell a lot of scented materials, a lot of times your nose will just kind of conk out,” Aftel says. She keeps some wool nearby to help reset her sense of smell, and three big whiffs does the trick. So why does this work? Aftel says one theory is that the lanolin in wool absorbs and neutralizes odors, giving the brain a rest from sensory overload. As for those coffee beans you might see in some perfume shops? Those "definitely don't work," Aftel says.

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