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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  • Crayola Crayons are made in neighboring town I grew up in! I recall going on a tour once or twice, and I took tennis lessons as a child from someone who also worked for the company, so if I had a great lesson I got rewarded with crayons!

  • Where’s the Mr. Roger’s film about how crayons are made?!? My favorite crayola memory, by far. Thanks for the great post!

  • I’m enjoying your color series SO MUCH and this is the best post so far (and I’m not even a Boomer!). Thanks for this :)

  • As an avid color-er and elementary school art teacher, Crayola reigns supreme! Seriously, no other crayon performs as well as Crayola. I remember watching a Mr. Rogers episode where they went to the Crayola factory. It was fascinating. I also love the color names; vivid tangerine was always my favorite. Thank you for this awesome post and the beautiful images.

  • I remember how happy I was at the start of a new school year, opening my brand new box of 64. It felt so rich to have so many colors!

  • As a cild I was so excited to receive packet 5 which I still have many many years later. As an adult running a couple of weekly kids groups I bought cheap felt tips, colouring pencils and crayons to start with. False economy. For value for money and quality I have yet to find anything to better Crayola.

  • I also toured the factory as a kid, and it was informative and really fun. Worth visiting in Easton, PA.

  • As a future graphic designer, I fell in love with color and Crayola crayons at an early age. My favorite sound is that of crayons rustling in an old cigar box that I would get from my grandfather. I used fo hide the magenta crayon, then ask my mother to search the cigar box for that color just so i could listen to that calming sound. To this day I have one of those cigar boxes on my bookshelf filled with beautiful unused Crayolas just for me!

  • Thank you so much for post! One of my most fond and vivid memories I have as a child is the feeling of pure joy I would get from opening a brand new 64 box of Crayola Crayons. I would stare at the spectrum of colors and soak them up while they were all still pristine, still perfectly shaped and then dive into my next project. I’m actually in the process of designing an enameled piece of jewelry that was inspired by this great tin box my grandmother use to keep crayons in.

  • I have many fond childhood memories of my box with the built in sharpener! It’s also my opinion as a mom that a lot of brands don’t deliver the quality color of crayolas. Since I prefer to buy something I know is good, I stick with the Crayolas! (Washable, of course.)

  • wonderful article! i don’t think ola means oily though in french – where did you hear that?

    • Zadie: numerous sources on the history of Crayola crayons maintain the story of Crayola’s French inspiration. However, after some digging, it appears that you are on to something. It would appear that the “ola” part of Crayola stems from the french word “oléagineux,” which references oilseeds or oiliness.

  • Every year at the beginning of the school year I buy a box of crayons even when I don’t need them. But somehow during the year they get used. First thing I do is open the box and take a big whiff. The scent of Crayola is so iconic and the memories come flooding back of elementary school!

  • My prized art supply as a child was a box of skin toned Crayola crayons. With a box of the original 8, you had every shade that you needed to finally draw your friends! I actually bought a box with vintage style packaging and never opened it because I don’t draw anything with crayons anymore but I just really really love Crayola.

  • Max I adore this article. I’m glad someone finally mentioned the built in sharpener! One of my most favourite things, and the beauty of all of the crayon shavings in a wonderful array of colours.

    And I cannot find the Mr Rogers video anywhere :(

  • Crayola is the best. I heard a story about someone who got a new box, and one of their crayons were broken… he emailed the company and they sent him a perfectly new red crayon the next week. So not just great product, but great customer service!

  • I absolutely love the smell of them, in fact I may have a large box hidden under my desk just to take a whiff of every now and again…

  • No way, Roseart and Prang crayons were TERRIBLE! Crayola legitimately was the only decent crayon in town. Probably still is. Every few years I get suckered into buying a giant beautiful box of them, just because it’s so pretty and intoxicating. Then they sit around forever til I give them to some kids or something, because… I don’t really have use for crayons.

  • One of my all-time favorite Sesame Street vingettes was about how Crayola Crayons were made. I love them! :)

  • Love Crayola crayons. They were definitely my favourite as a kid! I remember they always had the best colour selection. I had one of those 100 packs that even came with a sharpener. It was one of my most prized possessions at 7 years old.. haha

  • Thanks for this post! And thanks allison, for linking to that sesame street video — i remember it being so magical. Now that i have a daughter, i’m reexperiencing the crayon love all over again. She was given a jumbo box for christmas last year and i was just as excited as she was (okay, probably more).

  • Crayola crayons smell different now, I don’t know exactly why, but they just don’t smell like they did in the 80s.

  • Hi, I was in grade school in the 60’s. Getting our crayons for school was a big deal! For whatever reason, my mom would always get me the box of 48, when what I really wanted was the huge box of 64! True, I have tested many a crayon and only Crayola will do!

  • Allison, that video was my absolute fav when I was a kid. I used to sit there and stare at my crayons like the video would suddenly start or something! When the twist-up Crayolas came out in Primary School, the teachers banned them because there were fights about people breaking each others crayons!

  • The Christmas stocking for my brothers, sisters and me always had a new box of crayons. I was really happy when Crayola expanded its line to include different size boxes because as the oldest of the five of us,,I got a bigger box. When I had children of my own, they each got a box of crayons in their stockings. Now there were the specialized ones – metallic, pastel only, ….. Now they put a box of Crayolas in the stockings of their children. By the way, I still get a new box in my stocking each year. Now I am happy to have the small 8-pack – it does what I need to do. I am now 70. And Crayola crayons are still mighty special.

  • I love the smell, I love love love the colors, and I love them as beautiful objects. But as far as an art tool, I really don’t care for them. Oil pastels on the other hand…

  • I have a best friend who keeps a new box of crayola crayons in a secret drawer, just so she can look at them and remember how happy they made her as a kid. Just want to add that she has what we referred to as the “good box” 50 years ago-64 crayons with a sharpener in the back of the package.

  • If you, like me, end up with bags and bags of crayola stubs…there are a number of wonderful things to do with them. Two that jump to mind are : “stainedglass” windows ( shavings ironed btwn wax paper) celebrated in the “The Liar’s Club” by Mary Carr…and also shiny colored rocks ( warm flat rocks in the oven and then run crayons over them…when cool polish with tissue until shiny. these last are soooofun but beware the rocks even at lowest oven setting are too hot for wee little ones- def better for slightly older crafters. :-)

  • Growing up in the sleepy English countryside I was always so proud of my Crayola stash that my Aunties would send be from the States. They seemed so exotic and had great trading power. They started my life long love of colour. Since I have become a colour consultant and surface designer for several Product/fashion brands. Thank you Crayola for inspiring me to find fun names for my swatches and palettes.

  • Crayola is the best. They really have perfected that wax to color ratio. Other crayons leave more wax than color on the paper. They are also the only ones that can be re purposed. When we get too many broken crayons, we will bake them in a silicone mold and give them away as gifts. The crayola crayons come out perfectly every time. Any other brand leaves a huge layer of clear wax on the top of the crayon.

  • I just turned 52 and I so still love my Crayolas! I have a 96 ct. box, plus the edition in the tin! Now, I haven’t colored in a while, but as a crafter, I’ll be playing with crayons and fabric in an upcoming quilt class! The teachers of the class have indicated that the Crayola brand gives the best results because of the wax content it has. Can hardly wait to use my Crayola crayons in this new technique!

  • I am a self-professed crayon historian and have the http://www.crayoncollecting.com web site that documents much of the history of crayons. Nice article! I see you have a couple of pictures of my crayons; thanks. A couple of corrections though: Crayons prior to Crayola weren’t just fragile and available to artists. Quite the contrary. Crayons had been made and available in the USA for 20 years before Crayola came along. These were grass root companies like Franklin Mfg. Standard Crayon, Prang, Dixon and Eagle Pencil. Granted, the quality of their crayons probably weren’t up to the standards that Crayola brought along but they were already fairly sophisticated. Franklin introduced the 8-count box and the 16-count box. Crayola did two things right to dominate. 1. They made a quality product at an affordable price. 2. They branded all their crayons early on; a branding so strong it survives to this day; everyone recognized the familiar yellow/green boxes. Another correction: The Smithsonian doesn’t house the original Crayola box of crayons. They have a few early boxes of crayons. While Crayola may very well have sold an 8-color box originally in 1903, it was all green, not yellow (and you have one of their 8-color green boxes pictured…nice job!) and the bigger thing is that they actually had an entire catalog of crayon boxes available….from 6 colors to 30 colors. There’s no document to show they started with just 8 colors and morphed to 16, etc. In reality, I trace them back to 38 original colors used across their original 1903/1904 catalog of assortment containers. Finally, the whole “retirement” phenomenon is fun, but the reality is that while Crayola chose to take a few of their colors and formally retire them, they have in reality been dropping, adding and changing colors throughout their history. Funny how there is no uproar for the disappearance of say, “Van Dyke Brown” or “English Vermillion” even though those colors were around for many years. Still, I agree, boomers have influenced the retro movement and Crayola has done a good job capitalizing and appeazing to the wants of their consumers in this area.

    • Hi, Ed!

      Thanks so much for your thorough input! Compiling information for these features on ephemeral items can be, as I’m sure you know, quite difficult. Many of the sources I consulted provided contradictory information, so I’m glad you were able to clear some things up!

  • Oh this brings back happy memories of my first experiences of creating art! Just looking at these photos brings back the smell of the wax and the way it used to get stuck in my fingernails, happy days!

  • Noticed this article was placed around May, 2013. I just purchased a large (120 pc) box of Crayola Crayons and am so very disappointed. I’m a grown up, I love coloring and have purchased some of the amazing color therapy and fun coloring books for grown ups. So, you can imagine my stunned disappointment when I discovered the crayons are now cheap and waxy!!! Heavens, what’s happen to the amazing Crayola Crayons that gave us such great color with dependable consistency & texture?

  • I remember my first love with Crayola crayons. I loved the rainbow of colors and how they are displayed so proudly in the box. Each time the lid was opened the wax smell filled my nose as my eyes expressed joy. It was really cool to me how the box had a sharpener on the side. Awesome memories with my boxes that’s for sure.

  • 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!