Featured Image: Cover of Outline Pictures for Little Paint Brushes. Outlines by George F. Barnes. D. Lothrop & Company, publishers. 1881. Joseph Downs of Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library.
Three important changes in the popular literature of the nineteenth century contributed to the rise of coloring books. By the 1880s, publishers began to print large numbers of primers and textbooks for young readers, magazines for adults and children, and illustrated children’s books. All these forms of print benefited from the contributions of a new technology for printing pictures, lithography. Attractive pictures increased the accessibility of the printed word, a fact that educators and publishers exploited in their lessons.
From the beginning, well-illustrated books and periodicals for children were marketed largely to the same audience: the white, literate, middle class as captured on the covers of the coloring books seen below. Both covers illustrate the intended audience: a child whose family could afford cute outfits and a multitude of toys. The Indian chief doll in the lower right corner of the second cover certainly shows that the printer had little interest in respecting, let alone appealing to, other cultures. The first book (pictured above), published in 1881, and the second, from 1928, demonstrate that while other aspects of coloring books changed through their fifty year development, the intended consumers remained the same. All the coloring books I examined for this project only contain images of white children at play or school.
In the mid-nineteenth century the magazine industry became immensely successful, led by Godey’s Lady’s Book and buoyed by its rivals. These publications, brimming as they were with popular fiction and information about culture and fashion, deliberately targeted the middle class. The magazines were critical actors in carrying American visual culture to the rising middle class and enabling their social ambitions.
In addition to the usual engravings, fashion plates, and smaller images, magazines often included full page prints. These were inserted into the magazines to be removed and framed by the reader. Subscribers grew accustomed to quality images in their publications and their homes and they were able to access art they might otherwise not see. In the age before Google Images, these magazine prints served as an important means of disseminating visual culture.
Our Young Folks – Click here for an example of one of these children’s magazines.
Looking to expand their profits, publishers sought more audiences for new magazines and found children. Publications such as St. Nicholas, Our Young Folk, and others directly addressed children as a consumer market. These magazines, much like their adult counterparts, featured stories, and, importantly, images from popular authors and engravers. By reading the magazines, children emulated adult behavior and absorbed social dictates. The contents of the magazines, broadened children’s understanding of the world and introduced them to new people and places. Children could explore different possible futures for themselves through these various adventures and, by reading them, imitate the consumer habits of their parents.
“While definite lessons have been indicated on every page, it is to be hoped that the pictures in themselves will suggest to the teacher additional topics for talks and blackboard sentences, and at the same time furnish interest and incentive to induce the child to learn to read the text.” – Palmer Cox, “Preface” to Palmer Cox Brownie Primer
Another result of the revolutions lithography brought to the publishing industry was the growth of literature intended specifically for children, especially picture books. These publications had similar appeal to that of children’s magazines. However, picture books were especially important to the creation of coloring books. Both children’s magazines and picture books featured short, illustrated stories. Authors, publishers, and educators agreed that illustrations were important to engaging more children in reading. Pictures encouraged children to read for pure enjoyment, not just for education. Children’s literature was a growing source of fun and the illustrations were a critical aspect of this.
Educators quickly realized the vital role illustrations played in engaging children in the learning process. The popular illustrator, Palmer Cox, built a successful franchise around his impish creations called the Brownies. For several years, he published picture books about their adventures. Beginning in the 1920s, Cox meshed the popular Brownies with a primer for young readers. The textbook was intended for use in classrooms and covered a year’s worth of lessons. Nearly every page had images of the Brownies at work or play, the pictures relating to the lesson on the page. And of course, children colored in their primers as well.
“The genial, hearty, and helpful spirit with which the little men are supposed always to go through their tricks, is largely the cause of the success they have had. May they find equal favor in the school room, while the children are learning to read.” – Palmer Cox, “Preface” to Palmer Cox Brownie Primer
Other primers from the time embraced this principle. Textbook publications boomed at the end of the nineteenth-century reflecting the rise of literacy in the middle class. More children were able to attend school as child labor laws, unions, and mechanization pushed children out of factories and fields. Increasingly, children were literate and used to books with illustrations. Popular primers included Appleton’s School Readers and McGuffey’s Readers, both of which evolved to include illustrations in later editions.
All of these publications intended for children created a new, nationwide literary and cultural heritage and a unique generational unity. They built a framework for acceptance of coloring books by adults as valuable toys for children.