Long before most of us were entrusted with things like paint and permanent markers, those wishing to explore their artistic talents were limited to the simple, non-toxic pleasures of crayons. And there is simply no other brand that ever came close to capturing this market like Crayola crayons. With their rainbow of vivid colors, and an intoxicating smell that still lingers in the minds of many, Crayola is now synonymous with the crayon and, as such, accompanied just about all of us through our pre-adolescent creative endeavors. Today, we take a look back at one of the most iconic drawing tools ever to land in a child’s hand.
Although coloring goes back thousands of years, the history of Crayola Crayons stops in 1885, when the Peekskill Chemical Company was renamed Binney & Smith after cousins and new co-owners Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith. Although producing the pigment that made barns red and tires black, Binney and Smith set their sights on the educational domain with their An-Du-Septic brand of dustless chalk (the product would become so famous that it would win them a teacher’s gold medal at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair). It was while promoting this and other fine products across the country that the entrepreneurs discovered that most school teachers imported expensive and ungainly wax crayons from Europe. Binney and Smith realized that they had unwittingly created the solution to this dilemma already when they had developed a colored stick for marking up crates and boxes.
Armed with the wherewithal and the purpose, Binney and Smith returned to the factory and the drawing board, creating a non-toxic version of their coloring stick. Edwin’s wife, Alice, harmonized two French words to give the product its name, Crayolas, or “oily chalk.” In 1903, nearly twenty years after starting their company, Binney and Smith released eight crayons (Black, Blue, Brown, Green, Orange, Red, Violet, and Yellow) in a green and yellow box that would become an American classroom fixture for the next hundred years and counting. Available for a nickel, Crayola Crayons appealed by design to multiple users with logos like “unequaled for outdoor sketching” and “good in any climate, certified non-toxic.”
In 1949, the forty-eight crayon box hit the streets and classrooms with combined originals like “red orange” and whole new colors such as “apricot,” “cornflower,” and “periwinkle.” Nine years later, the sixty-four crayon box was introduced with a built in crayon sharpener. In the 1980s, the Crayola box made room for fluorescent colors such as “Blizzard Blue” and “Laser Lemon.” 1993 saw the christening of the “Big Box,” a mind-numbing ninety-six color crayons, seemingly ensuring that a kid could both color and snack for the virtual duration of his or her childhood.
While many colors have been added over the years – most recently “Inch Worm,” “Jazzberry Jam,” “Mango Tango,” and “Wild Blue Yonder” to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary – a few have either retired or resigned to time. “Prussian Blue” became “Midnight Blue” in 1958 at the request of schoolteachers. In 1962, largely in response to the growing Civil Rights movement, Crayola voluntarily changed “Flesh” to “Peach.” Although named for a fine-oil paint found near India, “Indian Red” was nevertheless changed to “Chestnut” on behalf of teachers who felt that school children improperly derived the name from the skin color of Native Americans. However, not all retirements have lasted. Public outcry brought eight favorites out of retirement in 1990 and placed them not only in the Crayola Hall of Fame, but also their own commemorative box.
Now owned by Hallmark, the Crayola trademark still graces some two billion green and yellow boxes that sold in over sixty countries. With an estimated twenty-eight minutes a day devoted to coloring by children between the ages of two and eight, coloring is as popular as it’s ever been. After six hundred different attempts, one hundred twenty Crayola colors fill shelves today. And just as quickly, people snatch them up, tear open the box, inhale the familiar smell, and set to recording, remembering, and capturing the world before them.
If you have fond memories of spending your days of youth next to a box of well-used Crayola crayons, we welcome you to share your recollections in our comments section, as we pay tribute to these iconic art supplies that still reign supreme after a century of creating mountains of artwork that, if not fit for a museum, was certainly acceptable on any refrigerator door.