Between 1870 and 1920, an increasing number of children learned to read. Fewer families needed their children to earn wages and could afford a childhood of education and play.
School enrollment increased sharply. In 1870, elementary schools enrolled 57% of children but over the next fifty years, this rose to 75%. By the outbreak of the First World War, only 7% of the population was illiterate. Rising literacy rates, coupled with cheaply produced books, meant that reading materials were accessible to the majority of Americans. Coloring books, with their written instructions, had a much wider audience than ever.
“See to it, mothers, that your young children are guided aright from the beginning for children’s minds are plastic and receptive and everything makes an impression. They are far more easily led than driven and encouragement does much more than reproof. Let us then direct them in the right way by care and attentive training. That this little book may go forth and assist the mothers in their noble work of educating the children is the sincere wish of the author.” – F. I. Wetherbee, Home Painting Gallery: Painting & Sketching Book
Progressive Era education reforms meant that teachers shifted away from traditional learning methods such as text heavy books and phonetic learning. Under the guidance of new theories, they embraced new methods of teaching. Phonics were abandoned for whole word memorization and oral recitation became silent reading. Primers, like children’s magazines and picture books, embraced the instructive and engaging qualities of illustrations.
The stories that formed the backbone of primers and textbooks de-emphasized overt moral messages. Children’s literature embraced adventure stories and imagination. Beginning in the 1880s, authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, L. Frank Baum, Beatrix Potter, and Howard Pyle introduced young readers to creative and enjoyable stories.
“It is a mistaken idea that children learn to read only through bare, spiritless statement of fact. At no other period is imagination so naïvely active, and to the imaginative faculty the Brownies appeal.” – Palmer Cox, “Preface” to Palmer Cox Brownie Primer
Schools not only taught the foundations of American education (classically reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, recitation), they were also responsible for shaping the culture of future generations. The vignettes and stories in primers and textbooks became Books for young readers also blossomed in this era. Popular series like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Bobbsey Twins building brand loyalty while “preaching the virtues of frugality, industriousness, sobriety, and punctuality.” As they read, children imbided “messages about right and wrong, the beautiful and the hideous, what is attainable and what is out of bounds – in sum, a society’s ideals and directions.”
This image, from the Brownies primer, shows the Brownies raising the American flag. Their delighted smiles and waving arms indicate cheering and invite the viewer to share in their enthusiasm. Similar messages and themes are reproduced throughout primers and other children’s books highlighting acceptable forms of play, respected professions, common holidays, and so on. The visual culture of these books also supported the era’s gender, racial, and class constructions.
When coloring books entered the scene, they often filled a similar purpose. Coloring book images, like the one below, promoted similarly wholesome themes. This page, from Hood’s Sarsaparilla Painting Book, primarily featured images that marketed the company. By the 1920s, coloring books were often used to promote a certain brand or product. It is easy to shape childrens world views when they are young, and publishers, advertisers, and educators took advantage of this.
Art & Aesthetics
“The happy child is the busy child but busy in an interesting and educational way. The mischievous child is busy but the sorrow which surely follows is not like the joy, happiness and satisfaction that right-doing always carries with it. Therefore, it seems necessary to keep the growing brain of the little child busy in the right direction from the time it begins to “take notice” until it is launched in life ready to face the world.
All cannot become artists but there is art and good taste to be shown in everything and neatness above all else.” – F. I. Wetherbee, Home Painting Gallery: Painting & Sketching Book
Educators also saw the potential in children’s picture books to instruct aesthetics. Early art education was largely based on technical skill and color theory. This was especially important in an age when children were mixing their own water colors. Coloring books featured strict instructions on how to mix paints, how to hold your brush, and even what colors the images should be.
These excerpts, which echo the “instructions to the little artist” found in all of the earliest coloring books, embody the dictatorial nature of early coloring books. Children were not supposed to interpret pictures on their own but rather to adhere to the structure provided.
“But a good thing to do is to first copy the picture on white paper, and try colors upon that until you are suited, before painting the one in the book. In this way you can experiment in mixing colors, and thus learn how to get many pleasing tints and shades.” – Outline Pictures for Little Paintbrushes 1881
“Smoke near top bluish greys, put in cloudy washes varying from quite dark to light, and extending irregularly down in the middle to the top highest flame, on right side a little lower, on left not so far. Below the smoke, behind the log, a wash of bright, clear pale yellow fading out at bottom on level with boy’s chin. From there begins a wash of pale orange, deepening to light brick red at bottom of picture, ending on right at bar, on left running down lower and fading out. (All this background kept light to throw out figures of boy and cat in silhouette.) Logs – Red brown, lighter ends. Flames bright yellow at base, deepening to bright red at tips. Andiron balls – Yellowish bronze (dark), with white spot left for reflection on the fire-side of centre, and a dark spot on the other side of white spot. The rest of andirons dark brown (darker than log).” – From the instructions accompanying Tilton’s Outline Design Cards for Studies and Decorative Purposes with Directions for Coloring. S. W. Tilton & Co., Boston, 1880.
Nineteenth century coloring books featured pairs of pages. One was a chromolithograph exemplar, showing the correct way to color a scene, while the second was outlines alone. They included very specific instructions on how to achieve correct colors (green from blue and yellow, purple from red and blue, and so on). Some had explanations at the beginning of the book, while others also included instructions as the book progressed.
Home Painting Gallery: Painting and Sketching Book in particular begins with written directions about painting and coloring. It progresses to specific drawing techniques – practicing straight lines, shapes, and so forth – then uses full coloring pages to reiterate specific lessons. Coloring books became a powerful teaching tool that combined fun with important lessons. Educators understood that even if a child did not grow up to become an artist, these coloring book lessons were nevertheless life skills.
After the Second World War, Americans sought to revitalize the nation and believed that creativity was important to social renewal. It was the patriotic duty of young American parents to raise the next generation to reach their fullest potential. To balance the education children received in schools, parents invested in educational toys that bolstered physical skills and cognitive abilities. Among these, of course, were coloring books.
However, by the 1950s, art education emphasized originality in all things. Teachers rejected the technical skills, color theory, artistic study, and art history of the pre-war era, worried that these would curtail a child’s inherent creativity. Educators insisted that as much as possible, children’s work should be original, free of limits imposed by adults. Self-expression was essential for a child’s full emotional, creative, and mental development.
These ideas were taken to the extreme by Viktor Lowenfeld, who in 1948 published a psychological study into the impact of coloring books on children’s creative development. Lowenfeld argued that coloring books actually curtailed the creative impulse of children and ultimately their full emotional growth.
Lowenfeld’s ideas were popular at the time, although in the decades since then, they have been largely rejected. Scholars and educators have found fault with his methodology and conclusions, ultimately pointing to the continued popularity of coloring books through the years. Generations of parents have continued hand their children coloring books.