When children’s illustrated books were published in the early nineteenth century, their illustrations were usually woodblock prints. The primary technological advancement that made printing coloring books possible was the invention of lithography and its widespread adoption by the publishing industry. Alois Senefelder, a struggling German playwright, was seeking a cheaper, easier way to publish his work and in 1798, he invented lithography. Introduced to America twenty years later by Bass Otis, it laid the foundation for unprecedented changes to publishing. The new method was faster, easier, and required fewer workers than the older printing presses, woodblock carving, or etching techniques.
Using chemicals to transfer an image to a “printing stone,” lithography exploits the inability of wax, grease, and ink to combine while also using materials that could withstand the strain of heavy presses. The process of lithography is hard to visualize, but the Minneapolis Institute of Art published a video explaining each step. It begins with a thirty second animated clip that succinctly explains the process, followed by a more in-depth demonstration and explanation of each step.
Lithography’s stone blocks could print longer runs than woodblocks or lead type. Lithographers could also create (or, as importantly, recreate) images in a level of detail previously impossible. It was finally possible to distribute information and images on a large scale and, best of all, at a reasonable price. The addition of steam power increased the speed of printing. With the introduction of chromolithography in the 1870s, which produced multi-colored prints, prints no longer needed to be hand colored.
The effect of these innovations on the publishing business was dramatic. Companies could now print on a large scale, in a single location, and at an efficient rate. During the 1850s, the Kellogg brothers of Hartford, Connecticut were printing between 3,000 and 4,000 pieces of popular work daily in addition to their job work. The former included “pamphlets for children” that the company sold to enhance their profits. Other companies focused on building a national book trade using the new railroads to distribute high quantity printed materials, including the primers already discussed.
Lithography also enabled the rapid growth of the magazine industry. Books and printed materials were cheaper and easier to make, so the final product did not need to be costly. While magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book had actually been published with the idea that readers would keep them, other magazines could be purchased, read, and discarded. Publishers like S. S. McClure and Edward Bok had their investors cover part of the printing cost in return for advertising space. Advertising was critical to keeping the cost to consumers low and it quickly became part of the industry, accepted by publishers and readers. Even advertisements became more visually appealing; companies took advantage of the artistic technology to design eye-catching advertisements, often detailed illustrations of their factories.
Thanks to these innovations, the nineteenth century experienced “an explosion of the visual.” Suddenly, the American population had access to cheap prints in large qualities. The visual world was no longer reserved for those who could afford expensive books, classes, or prints.
Coloring books were the direct result of the changes in printing that introduced pictures and art into the everyday world of the middle class. Being able to print clear images in mass quantity meant that coloring books were a practical fiscal undertaking that would earn the publishers money. By the end of the nineteenth century, coloring books were so cheap that they could be given away.