Art In The Everyday

Art In The Everyday: Crayola Crayons

by Maxwell Tielman

While I wouldn’t say that I’m a diehard enthusiast of any one brand, I most definitely was as a child. Perhaps it’s because children haven’t become jaded against advertising, or perhaps it’s because they’re still shaping themselves as people, but children do seem to have pretty strong opinions when it comes to their brand allegiances. Take school supplies, for example. When it came to outfitting my pencil case (which was a Spacemaker, thank you very much) I was one picky consumer. While I certainly could have gotten by with Rose Art, Prang, or—God forbid—generic crayons— I would accept nothing less than Crayola. This might have been simply because they were (and still are) the leader in the crayon market and I just wanted to fit in. But I like to think that, even at a young age, I was discerning enough to understand how wonderful the rough paper of Crayola crayons feel against the skin, how intoxicating their deep, waxy smell is, and how utterly timeless their green and mustard yellow packaging looks. Even today, on the off-chance that I am in need of crayons, I will grab Crayola before anything else. I like to imagine that, like Heinz or Coca-Cola, Crayola has their secret crayon recipe down to a science, that they have perfected the way that their crayons glide smoothly across the paper and leave bold, not waxy marks. Perhaps I’m a crayon zealot, but I’d venture a guess and say others are in the same camp when it comes to Crayola.

The Crayola love many youngsters (and adults) feel is by no means unwarranted—the brand was in fact the world’s first mass-market manufacturer of crayons. Prior to Crayola’s introduction in 1903, the only crayons available were made for artists—fragile, toxic objects that were oftentimes imported from abroad. Invented by cousins Edwin Binney and Harold Smith, Crayolas were the first crayons to be both cheap and sturdy enough for everyday use by children. The name Crayola was actually coined by Binney’s wife, Alice, by combining the French words “craie” (chalk) and “oléagineux” (oily). When introduced, a box of Binney & Smith’s Crayola crayons sold for 5¢ and included eight colors: blue, green, red, orange, yellow, violet, brown, and black.

The crayons were an immediate success, wildly successful amongst students and teachers. It wasn’t until the late 1940s, however, with the advent of the Baby Boomers, that Crayola crayons made their way beyond the classroom and into people’s homes. It was at this time, around when Crayola introduced their all-encompassing 64-crayon box, that the idea of Crayola crayons as an American icon was cemented. It is, in fact, these very baby boomers that were the first to protest when Crayola announced it would be retiring eight of their original colors in the early 1990s. Crayon-chaos ensued, with picket lines outside the Crayola headquarters, discussion on The Today Show, and the founding of advocate groups like The National Committee To Save Lemon Yellow and RUMP— The Raw Umber and Maize Preservation Society. In response to this largely baby-boomer-fueled outcry, Crayola re-releaesed a limited edition tin box of their original eight hues—essentially inventing the nostalgia market that exists to this day. Indeed, as historians Dennis and Susan Hall point out in their book American Icons, “The American nostalgia craze, with the oldest boomers leading the charge, was taking off just as the ‘Crayola Eight’ were heading for retirement. By the end of the 1990s, companies like Binney & Smith, Coca Cola, Hershey, Mattel, and Volkswagen of America had cofound a ready market in the boomers for retro and heritage products.”

1. The original 8-count box. | 2. The Gold Medal crayon boxes, referencing the medal received by Binney & Smith at the St. Louis World’s Fair. | 3. The first box of 48 Crayola Crayons, ca 1949. | 4. The Crayola 52 Box, ca. 1939-1944. | 5. The first Crayola 64 Box, ca. 1958. (Images via Wikipedia. Photos 1, 2, 4 by Ed Welter. Photos 3 and 5 by Kurt Baty)

Although it might have been baby boomers that first saw the beauty and nostalgic value of the Crayola crayon, it certainly hasn’t been lost on later generations. Today, no stationery aisle would seem well-stocked without the iconic art supplies and no student’s pencil box would appear finished without them. Just as America’s own Smithsonian institution houses the original 8-pack of Crayola Crayons, there is a special place in all of our (perhaps overly nostalgic) hearts for them, as well. —Max

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  • Like Carol, I, too, am VERY disappointed in today’s Crayola. They don’t color anything like the ones from my or my children’s childhood. When I color with my grandchild, the satisfaction of a job well-done is gone! Why have they changed? And where can I get a crayon that resembles the ones I remember so fondly?

  • I agree, my new crayolas crayons are so waxy it is hard to color with them and they leave a waxy mess of fragments all over. They do not glide over the paper at all…BIG disappointment!

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