Crayons rank among my favorite things. Few objects can delight as much as these little sticks of paraffin and pigment, externalizing a child’s imagination onto paper. The word ‘crayon’ goes back to 1644, a diminutive of the French word craie (chalk) and the Latin word creta (Earth). But the combination of wax and pigment goes back thousands of years ago. Ancient Egyptians used a technique called encaustic painting to bind color to stone. Similar methods also existed with the ancient Greeks, Romans, and even in the Philippines.
Contemporary crayons supposedly originated in Europe. Made of charcoal and oil, they were far from the easy-to-use crayons we know today. Colored pigments eventually replaced the charcoal. Eventually, wax replaced the oil after it was found that it made the crayon stronger and more manageable.
Although several companies manufactured wax crayons, it was arguably Binney & Smith Company, later named Crayola, that embedded crayons in our collective consciousness. In 1903, the company noticed a need for safe, inexpensive and quality crayons. They produced the first box of eight Crayola crayons. Each box sold for a nickel. In 1958, the 64-color box of Crayola crayons with a built-in sharpener was produced. By 1981, the company topped $100 million in sales for the first time. Currently, Crayola produces an average of twelve million crayons a day or nearly three billion in a year, enough to circle the globe six times.
There are currently 120 colors, although 13 have been retired along the way, thus bringing the total number of colors to 133. (The 13 officially retired crayon colors are “Blue Gray”, “Lemon Yellow”, “Orange Red”, “Orange Yellow”, “Violet Blue”, “Maize”, “Green Blue”, “Raw Umber”, “Thistle”, “Blizzard Blue”, “Mulberry”, “Teal Blue”, and “Magic Mint”.)
I was able to buy some boxes of vintage crayons that date from the 1950s-1960s. When they came, I couldn’t help but feel the same excitement I did as a child when I opened up a box of unused crayons, just waiting for me.
Note that the boxes still contained the “Flesh” color, which was renamed to “Peach” since people have different colored complexions. “Indian Red, ” though named for a red pigment in India, was renamed “Chestnut” to avoid confusion with the skin color of Native Americans. Although crayons may have a specific use, each color is relative to the person perceiving it. Crayola itself uses the book, “Color: Universal Language and Dictionary of Names” to name their crayons, and even asks consumers to name the crayons on occasion. Our memories are embedded in crayons, and thus, may require different names.
I am making crayons, you all. Brace yourselves.
1. Crayon. Wikipedia. Accessed 23 November 2011.
2. Crayola. “Our History.” Accessed 14 November 2011.
3. Email communication with Crayola consumer affairs representative. 8 November 2011.