The Curious History Of The Adult Coloring Book


Since 2011 and the publishing of Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden coloring book the adult coloring market has seen an almost unbelievable explosion. Today, web stores and brick and mortar carriers alike seem to have an unending selection of titles to cure your need to color. Many of us may wonder where did this all come from? The really curious thing however is that this isn’t the first time that adult coloring books have dominated the market.

In 1961 three admen from Chicago created the first adult coloring book titled the Executive Coloring Book. This coloring book however was not full of fun patterns and playful subjects but instead was a much more targeted jab at conformism.


From: Executive Coloring Book, 1961

The title included several designs depicting a supposed business executive going through his day to day life: getting dressed, boarding the train, and working in his office. This may sound harmless but things get interesting when you take a look at the captions accompanying these images.

Below one of the first images we see in the book, one of a man getting dressed, is the caption “THIS IS MY SUIT. Color it gray or I will lose my job.” You don’t have to search for long until you stumble upon another image with a similar message: “THIS IS MY TRAIN. It takes me to my office every day. You meet lots of interesting people on the train. Color them all gray.”

The Executive Coloring Book started a trend in the 1960s of using coloring books to take jabs at the political era of the time. It was a way for people to say what they wanted and do so indirectly. Soon titles like the JFK Coloring Book began appearing along with more aggressive titles like Khrushchev’s Top Secret Coloring Book: Your First Red Reader which criticized life in the Soviet Union and communism.

These coloring books unlike those of today were rarely if ever colored. A 1962 piece from the New York Times reports that the only adult they were able to find that actually colored in the pictures of these coloring books worked for a crayon company. No, these coloring books were meant more as something to read over and giggle about much the same way we would watch a news report today from shows that, while reporting the news, mainly aim to make us laugh through satirical content.

Although several attempts have been made at rebirthing these sort of political themed coloring books in recent years, as Laura Marsh from New Republic suggests, they simply have not caught on. Today we seem to take our political conversations to social media and in turn remove any way to create “subversive” content like the coloring books of the 1960s again. Not because they are any different than the ones in the 60s but because there really isn’t such a thing as subversive content any more. Everything has it’s place in the world of social media.

Interestingly it is exactly social media, the killer of the would be best selling political coloring books of the 21st century, that has given the current adult coloring book craze it’s power. On Instagram alone #coloringbook has over 1,000,000 posts associated with it and even the more specific #adultcoloringbook has been used over 500,000 times! Facebook is reporting similar numbers with pages like “Adult Coloring” supporting a community of close to 31,000 people and many other pages and groups with memberships in the tens of thousands. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since most social media platforms today are visual, and what is more visual than art.

It can also be argued that our new digital age not only helped fan the flame for the current adult coloring book boom, but that it also lit the matches.


The internet has brought some amazing benefits into our lives, but one of the side effects has been a constant and seemingly unbreakable connection from everything. We are plugged into the world at all times leaving little opportunity for simple leisure activities that are key to managing stress. In fact, in its recent report The American Psychological Association which has been running annual stress polling since 2007, reports that a growing number of people point to technology as a significant source of stress, and those who check their devices more often report higher levels of stress.

With this raging fire of stress which has increased with every year since the APA has run its stress poll, people were looking for a way to break their connection from their current reality and just take a break. All that the adult coloring book needed was a small blip in creativity and marketing and it would once again find itself in the hands of the people, this time as way to answer their need for relaxation.

What we can gather from this is that the adult coloring book over the years has morphed to do what the people need it to do. In the 60s it was a way to comment on the political climate of the time, and it seems that today it has found its way in the hands of people looking to relax and unplug. It's interesting to now look towards the future.

Will the ever increasing stress levels and the power of social media help keep the medium alive or will it die out again like it did in the 70s until it is needed again, this time perhaps in a whole new form we cannot yet predict. The answers are unclear, but one thing is for sure, for the moment the adult coloring book movement shows no signs of slowing down.

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