It’s difficult to imagine a time without coloring books, one of the first ways children play at creativity. Inexpensive line art books have been a fixture in homes throughout the 20th century and beyond, tempting children to add color, and perhaps realism, to their favorite characters, machines, buildings, and lands, seas, and skies.
McLoughlin Brothers of New York City published one of the first paint books in the 1880s, when the firm collaborated with Englishwoman Kate Greenaway and printed books of line art, populated by her images of children dressed in Edwardian costumes. Her famous imagery helped sell the books, but in 1903 businessmen Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith, makers of industrial colorants and white chalk, perfected their brand of wax crayons, which they named “Crayola.” Parents loved the new, safe color sticks—they were neater than paint. Soon multiple publishers made books specifically for wax crayons and purposefully appealing to young children. The books sold well and continued to do so in the following years.
Some critics have dismissed coloring books as no more than childhood distractions, but educators and counsellors increasingly utilize them to teach subjects from history to mathematics. Especially valuable for non-verbal learners, they are also used in health and therapeutic care. And coloring books for adults have proliferated since the 2000s, offering stress-relieving titles such as Color Me Calm and Soothing Designs. There are coloring books for just about any subject, from ancient history to contemporary culture. What is your favorite subject? Add some color!