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.

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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