For several decades, even as more technologically demanding pursuits arose to demand kids' attention, the humble
remained a passively entertaining pastime, a quiet moment of just sitting down and creating that could calm down even the most
rambunctious of youngsters. There's something almost zen-like about carefully tracing a crayon along the thick-bordered edges of
illustrations inside a printed book that commands all the powers of concentration a kid can muster. Although there wasn't much to
it, it was good clean fun.
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The modern American coloring book, surprisingly, has its origins as far back as the late 19th century. A firm called McLaughlin
Brothers produced many of the children's books of the time; in 1881 they offered The Little Folks Painting Book, which had
illustrations by artist Kate Greenaway. Although crayons didn't quite exist in America at that time (Crayola wouldn't be around for
another twenty years), the book encouraged the use of watercolor paints. Popular because of its novel concept and amusing illustrations,
the book would continue to be reprinted for years.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the first few decades of the 20th, several other publishes would produce such books
for children, the design of which was simple enough for anyone to produce: clean, simple line drawings on white pages, with a colorful
cover to attract browsers' interest. It was recognized early on that incorporating the popular characters of the time (at least, as
many as existed in that period) increased sales. Thus, we got such items as Buster [Brown]'s Paint Book, featuring the little
scamp from comic strips; in addition, parents could also purchase a Buster Brown-themed set of paints as well.
Over the next several decades the format would flourish. Such printing companies as Whitman, Saalfield, and Merrill Publishing would
fight one another for dominance in the field; since this particular type of children's book was relatively cheap to produce, these
publishers released dozens of titles a year. Radio and early movie personalities like Shirley Temple would give way
to TV, comic book, and other mass-pop-culture characters. In fact, it is difficult to look back today at a list of 1960's or 70's
films or TV shows with even the slightest passing interest to children, and not find a coloring book devoted to the subject.
These days, collecting the humble coloring book is still an unpopular endeavor: doing so has certainly lagged behind the swells of
interest to other collectible items, for whatever reason. May collectors amass coloring books as simply a part of a larger pattern
devoted to certain characters or themes - i.e., a collector of I Love Lucy items will certainly want to add a coloring book
to his or her collection, but not one devoted to, say, Roy Rogers. There are other concerns as well: many extant coloring books from
previous decades have been colored in, and thus, have lost much of their appeal for collectors who demand mint-condition items. Also,
the paper used on coloring books has traditionally been even cheaper and crappier than that for other types of publications, even
counting children's fare: most of them are found these days with heavily acidic, yellowing pages that are simply unappealing to most.
On the plus side, however, is the fact that, since the field is not yet saturated with hardcore collectors, most items can be found
For those who might be interested, here's a rundown of ten of the most sought-after coloring books:
Mickey Mouse Pictures to Paint - Saalfield - 1931
Buster's Paint Book - Stokes Co. - 1907
Popeye Paint Book - McLaughlin - 1937
Walt Disney's Daniel Boone - Whitman - 1961
Jonny Quest Coloring Book - Whitman - 1965
Gene Autry Cowboy Paint Book - Merrill Pub. - 1940
Hopalong Cassidy Coloring Book - Abbott - 1951
Little Orphan Annie Coloring Book - McLaughlin - 1933
Dick Tracy Paint Book - Whitman - 1935
Family Affair's Color By Number - Whitman - 1969
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