The Colors of Childhood | History | Smithsonian
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The Colors of Childhood

Crayola crayons take us all back with their fondly remembered look, scent and feel on paper

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Bother, no pen. deep at the bottom of my purse, I snag a purple crayon. Hey, I'm a mom, and I scrawl big waxy letters on the back of an envelope. Thank heaven for the ubiquitous crayon.

The object at hand is one of only a few known to exist. It is an original box of 64 Crayola crayons from 1958. It's the rare baby boomer who doesn't remember one like it — the first box with the built-in sharpener. It was given to the National Museum of American History (NMAH) last year at a celebration in Manhattan's Rainbow Room to honor the 40th anniversary of the package. Bob Keeshan — Captain Kangaroo — was there, and press accounts appeared for days. Reporters waxed nostalgic over the box with its classic green and yellow chevrons.

"Can a brand-new crayon color, Boomer Gray, be far behind?" asked a New York Times headline. We boomers: like everything else, we think we own the crayon. But the truth is, nearly everybody alive today probably made their first colorful squiggles with a Binney & Smith Crayola.

It was 1903 when the crayon made its debut. Before that a child's crayon was just a stick of colored clay or chalk. It looked nice but when put to paper, nothing much happened — not a pretty picture. Binney & Smith was a small, 21-year-old firm, owned by Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith. They were already in the business of making color. They owned the rights to a line of red oxides of iron for the red paint used by most farmers on their barns. And they were also sellers of lamp black and white chalk.

They had been among the first to solve the centuries-old problem of how to manufacture a really black black. The answer was expensive carbon black. Binney & Smith likes to credit itself for figuring out how to make it inexpensively. At the 1900 Paris Exposition, the company won a gold medal for its carbon black display.

In 1902, they cleared the dust from America's classrooms with the invention of the then-famous An-Du-Septic Dustless Blackboard Chalk. The new chalk won Binney & Smith another gold medal, at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

By this time, they were doing a brisk business selling their products in America's classrooms. Besides chalk, they made slate pencils. But schools couldn't afford artist's crayons. The Easton, Pennsylvania, plant was already making an inexpensive industrial marking crayon out of carbon black and a durable paraffin.

Well, the rest is history. Color came to the classroom. It was Alice Binney, a former schoolteacher, who came up with the name Crayola. She combined the French word craie, meaning "chalk" with "ola," derived from "oleaginous," or "oily."

One of the first customers was the United States government, which began shipping crayons to schools on Indian reservations. Today the formulation of the nontoxic pigments and the wax, as well as how they give the crayons their distinctive smell, is a closely guarded secret. But some basics are clear.

Pigments, produced from natural sources — slate yields gray; metals, such as iron, yield reds; various types of earth yield yellows and browns — start off as powders that are pounded, ground, sieved, then refined and heated. The temperature determines the shade of color. Since 1903, more than 600 shades of Crayola crayons have been produced.

In June 1990 Binney & Smith decided to retire eight of its old colors to make some of the more modern, brighter colors that children seemed to be searching for in their artistic palettes. Not so fast, said a few of Crayola's veteran fans. One morning, a few weeks later, Binney & Smith executives arrived at their headquarters to find picketers protesting the decision. The RUMPs, or Raw Umber and Maise Preservation Society, and the CRAYONs, or Committee to Reestablish All Your Old Norms, had quickly mobilized their constituents. When the old colors were re-released later that year in a special holiday commemorative collection, the groups were mollified. Not too long ago, "indian red" became the third Crayola color ever to be renamed, when Binney & Smith decided that even though the name referred to the pigment from India, sensitivity required a new name. The new name, "chestnut," selected by Crayola customers, seems rather dull when you compare it with the names that came in as close seconds — "baseball-mitt brown" and "the crayon formerly known as indian red." In 1958 "Prussian blue" was renamed "midnight blue," since most children had never heard of Prussia. And in 1962, "flesh" was renamed "peach."

Back at the National Museum of American History, a large storage-room drawer reveals the museum's extensive crayon collection, ranging from the very old to some of the more recent, even including fruit-scented versions. There's a box, dated 1912, with a picture of Peter Paul Rubens. "Unequaled for outdoor sketching," it says on the side, reflecting Impressionism's emerging popularity. Binney & Smith first marketed in two directions: to artists and to schoolchildren. Here's the schoolroom version: "Good in any climate, certified non-toxic."

Here is a beautiful round wooden container that looks like a toothpick holder, full of crayons. And here is a beautifully crafted wooden box, its dovetail construction giving it the look of a treasure chest. The curator says that it is a treasure. It's filled with the 1941-57 factory standards — the master crayons, if you will. And there next to the standards is a box of today's "Multicultural My World Colors Crayons." The smell of paraffin bombards me. The olfactory system engages. The hypothalamus clicks on. Look out! Here they come — childhood memories!

That familiar smell — a Yale University study on scent recognition once ranked crayons as number 18 of the 20 most recognizable scents to American adults. When I visit Binney & Smith's seven-acre plant in Fork's Township, near Easton, that smell is making me feel like I'm 8 years old again. The plant is running full tilt to produce for the back-to-school season. Three billion crayons are made here each year. Wooden pallets, each piled with cases of crayons waiting to be packaged, line the walls. Outside the factory is a row of two-story storage tanks holding liquid paraffin, which will be pumped into vats and mixed with colored powdery pigment.

Crayon molder Michael Hunt, from Bangor, Pennsylvania, is showing me how it's been done since the very early days. Besides the paraffin and the pigment, Hunt tells me, the crayon also contains talc. "It's like the flour in a cake mix, gives it texture." His leather workman's boots are mottled with orange wax. Both of us are wearing protective goggles because the wax that he is pumping from his vat into a 40-pound pail is at 240 degrees Fahrenheit. "Sometimes a little of it splashes onto my face," he tells me. "Stings a little, but it cools off pretty quickly." He deftly lifts the bucket out from under the vat and spills the wax out across the cooling table, a gentle wave rolling across the top as the wax settles into the molds — 74 rows of eight. We're making the giant "My First Crayons" that fit easily into the hands of preschoolers.

We wait the 71/2 minutes for the wax to cool. When a timer chimes, Hunt announces the crayons are ready. He runs a cutting device over the top of the molding table and shaves away the extra wax. Then he lays the collecting tray carefully over the top, lining up the holes. He touches a button, activating a press from below, and the crayons gently rise up into the collecting tray. With ease, Hunt hoists the 31/2-foot-long tray of crayons around to the sorting table behind him and dumps the crayons there. On inspection, he pulls a couple of pointless runts from the rows and, with a wooden paddle, starts moving crayons from the table to a wrapping device. The whole old-fashioned process takes about 15 minutes.

Not too far away, a more modern, continuous-production operation is under way as a rotary molding table does all of Hunt's handwork mechanically. The machine is making the standard-size crayons. Materials go in one end, and operator Elizabeth Kimminour receives dozens of the thin, paper-wrapped products at the other end. She lays them neatly into cartons to be sent to the packaging plant. And that's where I get a glimpse of the celebrated box of 64 being produced. Clicking and whirring, factory machines are endlessly fascinating for those of us who rarely see them in action. Grabbers mysteriously turn flat sheets of printed cardboard into boxes while plastic sharpeners, lined up like soldiers on parade, drop precisely onto a wheel that injects them into passing boxes, which somehow along the way end up with crayons in them.

Binney & Smith is owned today by Hallmark Cards. And that company closely guards the Crayola trademark. (Ms. Crayola Walker of Bellow Falls, Vermont, and Ms. Crayola Collins of Pulaski County, Virginia, however, were graciously allowed to "borrow" the name.) Many companies, particularly foreign ones, would like to capitalize on the Crayola fame, and copycatters try to steal all the time. In the NMAH collection, there's an example of one such attempt — a party bag made to look very Crayola, but it isn't. Licensing of the trademark is common, however, with products ranging from software videos, sheets and bedding, to backpacks, wallpaper and wall paints, and even shoes that look like a box of crayons.

Back home again with my kids and a neighbor's child, I announce that we are going to color. I pull three boxes of 64 from a bag and hand one to each child. In no time at all, their industrious minds — their entire bodies — are completely engrossed in their work.

I remember reading in the Binney & Smith literature a claim that as a youngster, Grant Wood, who later painted the iconic American Gothic, entered a Crayola coloring contest in the early 1900s and won. The sunlight pours in through the window, translating color to vision. Claire is making a rainbow. She picks up a crayon. "This is ‘thistle.' It's what Eeyore eats." Next she chooses "dandelion," "forest green," "sky blue wisteria" and "tickle me pink." Patsy is drawing a portrait of Jessie, and Jessie is drawing the flower vase on the teacart. I try to imagine the inner workings of their creativity. Optical images register on the tiny retinas at the backs of their eyes, electronic signals travel the optic nerves to their brains, the signals are interpreted and messages sent back. Suddenly I snap out of my reverie as Jessie, pondering the red crayon in her hand, says, "I wonder who decided red should be 'red,' anyway?" And then she thinks a minute and says, "Do you think it was George Washington?"

About Beth Py-Lieberman
Beth Py-Lieberman

Beth Py-Lieberman is the museums editor, covering exhibitions, events and happenings at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been a member of the Smithsonian team for more than two decades.

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