Childhood pastime gets big kid reboot

coloring3If you don’t own one, you probably know someone who does. You can find them in grocery stores, drugstores, department stores and of course, bookstores. They are adult coloring books. Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest were the two best-selling books on Amazon in April of 2015, responsible for some of the year’s recovery in print sales. (Basford has sold nearly 10 million coloring books since Secret Garden was published in 2013.) Their powerful appeal has been attributed as a “great way to de-stress.” So much so, that they have become common for therapists in the mental health profession to recommend them. Is this a new thing for adults to color intricate lines, pinwheels, flowers and shapes?

Actually, to understand the origin and maybe shine some light on this current trend, we have to travel back to 1961 where the first adult coloring books appeared. They, however, have VERY little in common with adult coloring books of today.

The first adult coloring books appeared in 1961. They were subversive, ridiculing various unwanted member of society. Pill-popping executives, hippies, commie hunters and conspiracy theorists. They mocked the conformity of the post war corporate workplace. Created by three admen in Chicago, the ‘Executive Coloring Book’ showed pictures of businessmen going through their day as though teaching children what daddy does at work. Captions guided the reader on how to color the images. Mockingly, instructions included things like, “This is my suit, color it gray or I will lose my job.”

coloring1This brought more coloring books that exploited more social issues of decade’s neuroses: national security, the red scare, technology, sex, mental illness. Two more popular books took aim at President Kennedy: ‘Drucker’s JFK Coloring Book’ and ‘Joe B. Nation’s New Frontier Coloring Book.’ Mort Drucker’s JFK Coloring Book spent 14 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 1962, and sales of adult coloring books reached $1 million. They even began to permeate other forms of entertainment as Barbara Streisand released a song called ‘My Coloring Book,’ referring to that year’s fevered interest in coloring books for adults.

In August 1963, the Washington Post reported on a doctor who proposed using a 12-page coloring booklet “as a diagnostic tool…to classify patients by their types of disorders” from schizophrenia to brain damage. The Post called it the ‘Psychotic’s Coloring Book.’

The mid-60s coloring books continued to ride the wave of social issues. The red scare spawned ‘Khrushchev’s Top Secret Coloring Book: Your First Red Reader.’ The book caricatured Soviet leaders and life under communist rule, but was still deemed “objectionable” and banned in the United States Military. Meanwhile, the John Birch Society Coloring Book, which ridiculed conspiracy theorists and extremists, stretched the coloring book concept to its limits with a blank page, captioned: “How many Communists can you find in this picture? I can find 11. It takes practice.”

coloring2As the trend wore on, the books’ targets became more predictable. Publishers ridiculed occupations and lifestyles that already looked ridiculous without their help. There is a very strange part of the origin that still makes very little sense. Most of the coloring books from that decade were never colored in. Which begs the question, “Why, if people didn’t actually color them, were coloring books for adults so popular in the sixties?”  One conclusion is that coloring books, a nursery activity adopted by adults, exploded just as interest in Freudian psychoanalysis, and with it child development, was gaining unprecedented levels of popularity. Not only did coloring books show adults a childishly simplistic view of a corrupt world, they also showed how a child could be corrupted in the process of learning. For adults, the prospect of returning to childhood offered the chance to reject the system and embrace entirely new principles; this questioning of the norms of America society would also stoke the emerging civil rights, anti-war, and women’s liberation movements.

Now we fast forward to 2016. Are we seeing this need to remove ourselves from fear, corruption and an era of instability and uncertainty? Our present day adult coloring books are a far cry from the subversive ones from the 60’s. Perhaps we’ve evolved and within that evolution, we have found a new way to control our day-to-day lives in the colored pencils and paper filling in intricate patterns. Are we yielding an immediate sense of accomplishment when we look at the completed picture and see a tangible result in an otherwise out of control society? Maybe we just do it for fun.

Story by Fred Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges