Browse the children’s coloring book section in any book or toy store today and you are bound to notice that nearly all are associated with a recognizable character or franchise: Barbie™, Marvel Comics, Walt Disney™, and others. Their familiarity is engaging to children who relish the opportunity to interact with their favorite characters. This is not a modern phenomenon, children having long been drawn to characters they recognize.
The popularity of Palmer Cox’s Brownies and the success of related merchandise follows this pattern beginning in the 1880s, culminating in the publication of the primer in 1923. Cox not only marketed his illustrated books, he ran entire line of toys related to the Brownies.
As early as the 1890s, newspapers ran serial comic strips featuring specific characters who soon captured children’s imaginations. The idea behind comic strips was to increase newspaper sales to adults who would then share the paper. Children whose parents could not (or would not) buy the newspapers were still familiar with the comic strips, acquiring papers from other adults or friends willing to share. During the Great Depression, publishers reprinted comic strips into cheap coloring books, in an attempt to increase revenue.
Early advertisers used this principle to leverage children as a new market. The popular comic strip Buster Brown (first printed in 1902) was one of the earliest examples of synergy among advertising, comics, and character fame. Catalogs for consumer products soon featured new characters whose adventures entertained children in the same way as comic strips. Some marketed directly to children; others encouraged them to promote certain products to their parents.
The Dutch Boy’s Hobby, for example, establishes its hero on the cover. The subsequent pages build the story of the Little Dutch Boy and his Lead Horse fighting off General Trouble. Like other early coloring books, each page paired a colored and an uncolored picture with an accompanying
In this example, the National Lead Company, makers of house paints, meant for this to be a self-contained activity book. (No one understood the hazards of lead paint in those days.) It contains a page at the end with red, yellow, and blue pigment squares so that children only needed a wet brush to color. Finally, the book contains a perforated, tear away pamphlet for children to pass on to their parents. The entire booklet was an exercise in advertising and disposability: made of cheap materials, held together with staples, and intended to be colored and cut up.
Other advertisers appropriated popular characters without permission, as in the case of these versions of the Tin Man and the Scarecrow from L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Wherever the characters came from, though, every single one of these give-a-ways marketed the chosen product on each page.
These familiar faces were found in a coloring book handout issued by the Egg-O-See Cereal Company in 1906. The caption below the picture reads “I wish we were really and truly alive so we could eat some of that good Egg-O-See and E-C-Corn.” Hood’s Sarsaparilla offered a painting book that includes a page with a version of Edward Lear’s popular poem “The Owl and Pussy Cat” (albeit with words that fit their message).
This form of advertising was especially popular in the 1920s, coinciding with coloring books into cheap, easily replaceable toys. These books are bound with staples and printed on cheap paper without board covers. By the end of the decade, children’s coloring books had achieved the form they take today. They were meant to be taken up, enjoyed, and abandoned.
Oak Hall Catalog – Click here to see another example of a catalog with coloring pages.