The First Adult Coloring Book: See the Subversive Executive Coloring Book From 1961

Exec Coloring 1

Since the Har­ry Pot­ter craze began, we’ve seen young adult fic­tion gain mas­sive pop­u­lar­i­ty with adults, in ways some crit­ics have lament­ed as a trend that infan­tilizes the buy­ing pub­lic. (Some say the same about super­hero films and adult fans of boy bands). Katie Couric iden­ti­fied the phe­nom­e­non as “the rise of so-called Peter Pan activ­i­ties,” throw­ing “adult sum­mer camps and Lego leagues” in the mix. Crit­ics of Peter Panism can add anoth­er trend to their bat­tery of exam­ples: the rise of the adult col­or­ing book. Busi­ness Insid­er report­ed in April that “in Britain, four out of the top 10 Ama­zon best­sellers are col­or­ing (or colour­ing, as the Brits insist) books for adults.” Cur­rent­ly, Amazon’s top 20 best­sellers for 2015 includes three adult col­or­ing books. Among so many oth­er con­sumer signs and por­tents, adult col­or­ing books may indeed her­ald a com­ing apoc­a­lypse, at least for Rus­sell Brand, who won­ders, “What has turned us into ter­ri­fied divs that want to live in child­ish stu­pors?”

Well, whether “child­ish,” art ther­a­py or “Zen,” adult col­or­ing books meet a need mil­lions of grown-ups have to soothe their jan­gled nerves, and it seems almost cru­el to mock peo­ple so anx­i­ety-rid­den they’ve returned to kinder­garten reme­dies. Then again, it’s worth not­ing, as Smith­son­ian did recent­ly, “the adult col­or­ing con­cept is not exact­ly new.”

It dates back to the 1960s, when “book­stores explod­ed” with col­or­ing books geared exclu­sive­ly toward adults. The dif­fer­ence between then and now lies in the fact that those books were adult in con­tent as well as form—“satirical and sub­ver­sive,” offer­ing “a mock­ing look at Amer­i­can soci­ety.” The first of these, The Exec­u­tive Col­or­ing Book, arrived in 1961, fol­lowed by The John Birch Soci­ety Col­or­ing Book and many sim­i­lar titles “sat­i­riz­ing con­formism, John F. Kennedy and the Sovi­et Union,” among oth­er tar­gets. And yet, “Unlike the adult col­or­ing books fly­ing off the shelves today,” Smith­son­ian writes, “these books were not cre­at­ed with the inten­tion to be col­ored in.”

Exec Coloring 2

Take the two pages from The Exec­u­tive Col­or­ing Book above. The first, at the top, shows us our exec­u­tive prepar­ing for his day with the cap­tion “THIS IS MY SUIT. Col­or it gray or I will lose my job.” Above, a line of iden­ti­cal exec­u­tives boards a train. Ham­mer­ing home the point, we’re told “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.” A notable excep­tion to these drea­ry instruc­tions, below, tells us “THIS IS MY PILL. It is round. It is pink. It makes me not care. Watch me take my round, pink pill… and not care.” The con­tents of the pill may have changed, but the med­icat­ed work­er bee is still very much with us, though the gray flan­nel suit is a thing of the past.

Exec Coloring 3

Rather than giv­ing its tar­get audi­ence a chance to become kids again, The Exec­u­tive Col­or­ing Book pokes fun at the ways in which pam­pered exec­u­tives of the Mad Men-era could them­selves be shal­low man­chil­dren. One page, below, shows the executive’s sec­re­tary with the cap­tion “THIS IS MY SECRETARY. I hate her. She is mean. I used to have a soft, round lady. But my wife called her papa.” Anoth­er (bot­tom), rem­i­nis­cent of the busi­ness card scene in Amer­i­can Psy­cho, shows us the executive’s impor­tant phone: “THIS IS MY TELEPHONE. It has five but­tons. Count them. One, two, three, four, five. Five but­tons. How many but­tons does your tele­phone have? Mine has five.”

Exec Coloring 4

From its faux-leather cov­er to its final page of busi­ness-speak gib­ber­ish, the whole thing is a mas­ter­ful­ly sim­ple, self-con­tained piece of con­cep­tu­al art. The next pub­li­ca­tion by the same authors, The John Birch Col­or­ing Book, made its inten­tions a lit­tle more obvi­ous. A Sun­day Her­ald review quotes from its intro­duc­tion: “This book is respect­ful­ly ded­i­cat­ed to Dwight D. Eisen­how­er and many oth­er loy­al Amer­i­cans who have been maligned by extrem­ist groups.” One cap­tion reads “This is our eagle. We cut off his left wing. Now he is an all Amer­i­can eagle. But he flies only in cir­cles.” The “Birchers will have to learn to smile,” writes the review­er, as the book “spare[s] not their feel­ings.” Not like­ly. Rather than sell­ing relax­ation, the adult col­or­ing books of the 60s were “engaged,” wrote Mil­ton Brack­er in a 1962 New York Times review, “in polit­i­cal war­fare.”

Exec Coloring 5

via Smith­son­ian and Ad to the Bone

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Comments (9)
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  • Jean A. Roy says:

    Quite Inter­est­ing!

    Re your ‘en pas­sant’ com­ment on those books that “…are col­or­ing (or colour­ing, as the Brits insist) books for adults…”, as a French-Cana­di­an who had to learn eng­lish as a sec­ond lan­guage and hav­ing since been con­front­ed with those ortho­graph­ic and pro­nun­ci­a­tion nuances between their Eng­lish and Amer­i­can ver­sions, I feel that this “col­or / colour” thing is more of a per­sist­ing than of an insist­ing mat­ter.

    Vive la dif­férence!

  • Mike says:

    I dun­no, Jean. I think it’s just the Amer­i­cans who per­sist in spelling things the wrong way. Just kid­ding! :-D

    Great colour­ing book! I did­n’t think they made things like this back in the ear­ly 1960s. Attack­ing con­for­mi­ty just does­n’t fit in with my image of things back then; I guess those times were more inter­est­ing than I thought. The page with the pill is real­ly unex­pect­ed!

  • Sandi says:

    Peo­ple want to bash col­or­ing in a world where most adults spend hours every day drool­ing at a box with lit­tle pic­tures in it? One that in no way encour­ages any kind of cre­ativ­i­ty, pre­fer­ring to pet­ri­fy the human imag­i­na­tion with most­ly low qual­i­ty pro­gram­ming that pours in ears and eyes and back out into obliv­ion with­out ever fir­ing any synapse remote­ly con­nect­ed to a sin­gle fiber of cre­ativ­i­ty? I col­or because I love col­or for itself, and I can only get the oth­er half to paint every cou­ple years. I col­or because I enjoy it. I col­or because I want to, and that’s real­ly the only rea­son I need.

  • Mike says:

    San­di, if you can paint then go for it! As you said, it’s much bet­ter than watch­ing the idiot box. I write short sto­ries to retain my san­i­ty in a some­what insane world. I guess my writ­ing does for me what your paint­ing does for you. Human beings have a cre­ative side and this cre­ative impulse is very impor­tant for us; unfor­tu­nate­ly we live in a world of grey peo­ple going on grey trains to grey jobs. Paint­ing, colour­ing, writ­ing, play­ing a musi­cal instru­ment — these are the human safe­ty nets that catch us when we fall off the inhu­man machine we call an econ­o­my.

  • Ronny says:

    Total­ly agree.

  • Dr. Robyn says:

    We are reclaim­ing our visu­al arts as knowl­edge becomes less lin­ear. I adore graph­ic nov­els because they open up new emo­tion­al con­nec­tions with the text. “Box­ers & Saints” are a great intro. The blend­ing of East­ern logo-graph­ic writ­ten sym­bols and the abstract West­ern forms meet in memes and oth­er blend­ed media.

  • Lynette A Miller says:

    Free col­or­ing books

  • febe says:

    This seems to be legit but can you actu­al­ly col­or the pages on this site

  • Michael Harrop says:

    French has cre­ole ver­sions with fun­ny spelling too.
    Any­way, enjoy le couleur­ing, as they now say in France.

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