Colouring books are designed to engage children – and adults

By Jim Trautman

In the past several years, colouring book articles have been featured in newspapers, major magazines and television. Not children’s colouring books, but what has been referred to as Peter Pan books for adults. The books have been recommended to reduce stress, allow one to focus on a task and feel achievement when the picture is finished. It is even mentioned that each is a work of art and can be framed and put on the desk or wall for decoration.

New books focus on flowers, butterflies, Art Deco patterns, beautiful birds, the list of topics is endless. The adult market is vast due to the simple fact that probably almost 100% of adults began colouring when they were children. I know I did. It was not only enjoyable, but a painless educational tool to teach us from the start how to stay within the lines and be creative while we learned the names of the different colours.

Today, colouring books to collect have become a limitless item to search for and are usually very affordable. Of course, the key is to find books that are in mint unused condition with no colouring on any of the pages. The McLoughlin Brothers Company, famous for some of the earliest board games, printed the first colouring book in the 1800s – The Little Folks Painting Book.

Early colouring books were paint books since the first wax crayons didn’t appear on the market until June 10, 1903. The wax crayons were manufactured by the now-famous Smith and Binney company and marketed as Crayola. That first box contained red, orange, yellow, violet, brown, black, green, and blue crayons. It sold in a box with a flip cover for five cents. Over the years, different colours appeared or disappeared and the boxes were sold in different sizes, including a giant one of 64 coloured crayons which included a sharpener on the side of the box.

Smith and Binney, for many years, has been owned by the Hallmark Card Company. One of the three major companies that began printing colouring books was Whitman of Racine, Wisconsin. Today, it is owned by Western Publishing. If you collect books printed on pulp paper, then you likely have many Big Little Books in your collection. Whitman began printing these in the 1930s. Many of the Big Little Book titles were reprinted into colouring books. Saalfield, another major printer, quickly tapped into the interest in any item connected to Walt Disney.

In 1931, under license to Walt Disney, the first Mickey Mouse Colouring Book appeared in Five and Dime stores. The company followed the Mickey Mouse big seller by obtaining the rights to produce Shirley Temple books.

In the depths of the Great Depression, the demand for Shirley Temple items was immense. Saalfield’s first Shirley Temple book hit the market in time for the Christmas season in 1936 with their timely product – Shirley Temple: A Great Big Book To Colour. It was followed by Shirley Temple: My Book To Colour and Shirley Temple’s Blue Bird Colouring Book.

The Merrill Company of Chicago began as a publishing company producing paper doll books for little girls. It was a simple step to begin the printing of colouring books. Many were first printed as paper doll books or pulp books and then the next logical step was to make them into colouring books. The pulp paper was inexpensive and, except for the covers, the pages were usually printed in black and white. Parents discovered that colouring was an excellent way to spend very little money and keep the children happy for hours at a time. Almost every Christmas I found a new colouring book under the Christmas tree or in one of those large net stockings filled with cheap toys and candy found at the Five and Dime store. There were always Christmas scenes to colour. My favourite was The Night Before Christmas. Each page had part of the story set out in the same format that the Golden Book did, just waiting to be coloured.

Early in the 1930s, publishers approached various radio programs producers, movie companies and entertainers, requesting permission to print colouring books of popular shows and movies. The Gone With the Wind book was released shortly after the movie opened and can fetch $180 U.S. During the 1930s and ’40s, you could find colouring books featuring stars and celebrities like Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, the Dionne Quints, Betty Grable and The Shadow. Western movie stars of the 1930s became popular; Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Gabby Hayes. The Gabby Hayes colouring book was unique. It had a disc-shaped screen that could be turned to colour different pictures of Hayes, an actor whose career moved from the movies into early television.

With the end of World War II and the famous Baby Boom underway, the market became flooded with colouring books. Besides the Hollywood movies being represented, comic strip characters also appeared. With the introduction of television a new source of material was developed. Searching and finding vintage colouring books can be a trip into the cultural past of North American society. In the 1950s, when space and western shows filled the television, so did books issued to promote the shows. There were many, like Rocky Jones Space Ranger, Flash Gordon, Tom Corbett Space Cadet, Captain Video and His Video Rangers. The John Wayne colouring book produced by Saalfield in 1951 is one of the most valuable. If found in mint condition, it can sell for almost $200 U.S. Popular shows of the ’60s – the Time Tunnel, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Barbie, Disneyland, Bewitched – created new material for the market. Another of the largest collecting area involves characters from the comic pages and comic books: Batman, Superman, Super Boy, Spiderman, Little LuLu, Captain America, Wonder Woman, ISIS, the Flintstones, Buck Rogers, Steve Canyon, Peanuts. Large companies introduced colouring books as give-away items related to their products. This was a way to reward valued customers and was also a great advertising tool used by companies like Buster Brown, Cracker Jacks, Campbell Soup with the Campbell’s kids and Planters Peanuts.

In 1977, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rice Krispies, Kellogg’s issued three plastic doll figures of Snap, Crackle and Pop, and also a special colouring book featuring historical events that spanned the 50 years. The number of colouring books issued is endless. You can finds books for any given year that reflect the popularity of well-marketed toys from previous decades… in the ’80s you could find Cabbage Patch Dolls, Baby Beans and Strawberry Shortcake. Almost every Saturday morning show had a colouring book.

Over the years, colouring books were issued that focused on teaching the little ones their colours, numbers, alphabet and other educational topics. In 2017, the Dover Publishing Company of Mineola, New York ( established in 1941), still publishes a wide range of books for all age groups, including adults. For younger children, there is an entire series on the History of the Civil War, Aircraft of World War I and II, trains and automobiles. The company now produces a new range of publications for adults to enjoy. For more information, visit the Dover Publishing website or Google “colouring books” to learn more about value and specific books you might want to keep a lookout for when adding to your collection.