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Crayons Through The Ages ~ The History of Ordinary Things

A crayon is a stick of pigmented wax used for writing or drawing. Wax crayons differ from pastels which use a dry binder such as Arabic gum powder mixed with the pigment. In oil pastels, the binder is a mixture of wax and oil.

Ancient Egyptians left pictures on stones 5,000 years ago using a pigment with refined beeswax, heated and set. The Greeks used wax, tar and pigment to decorate ship bows in 350 BC. Evidence of mixing wax with pigment for drawing is present in the Roman times as well.

Leaping ahead, by 1900 black marking crayons were made from dry carbon black and different waxes. These are known as Staonal® brand Marking Crayons today and are used in many industrial settings.

In 1885, two cousins, Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith, started a company to manufacture red iron oxide pigments used for painting barns and lamp black pigment used to make rubber tires black. They soon expanded their product line creating slate school pencils and dustless chalk. While visiting schools, they observed the need for coloring tools for educational use.

In 1903, Binney and his wife, Alice, developed a line of wax crayons under the name Crayola, a French word meaning oily chalk. The wax composition was not popular with artists because of poor paper adhesion. In response, Binney & Smith began to market to educators for children. The 1903 yellow and green boxes were marked “School Crayons”. Each box contained the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown and black, the same colors available in the eight-count box today. The first eight-packs of Crayola were sold door-to-door for a nickel ($1.77 in today’s dollar).

For the first 40 years, each Crayola crayon was hand-rolled in paper wrappers with their distinctive labels and names. Wrapping was automated in the 1940s.

The Crayola brand has introduced the 16, 24, 32, 48, 64, and 96 packs over the last 100 years. According to Crayola, they currently manufacture 120 standard crayon colors with an expanded line of specialty crayons like metallic, gel, and glitter crayons for a total of 152 crayons.

The unique crayon smell is associated with beef tallow, or fat, used in the secret recipe. Stearic acid in beef fat is released in the manufacturing process giving crayons their characteristic smell. The tallow creates the waxy consistency and adds to the strength of the crayon itself.

With increasing diversity in schools, teachers reported that children could not color themselves with realistic skin colors. ‘Global Pack 1992’ added a full range of multicultural skin tones. In 2020, Crayola introduced a line of 24 colors named ‘Colors of the World’ to reflect nearly 40 skin tones of people globally.

Crayola released a line of food-scented crayons in 1994. The wax sticks came in coconut, cherry, and licorice. By July 1995, Crayola had discontinued them because some children ATE the crayons.

Binney & Smith was purchased by Hallmark Cards in 1984. It was renamed Crayola LLC in 2007. Today, five million Crayola crayons are produced each day. Over two billion crayons are sold each year across 60 countries.

More than 500 colors have been retired or renamed. Survey results from 1993 and 2000 report blue and shades of blue are the most popular colors.

Crayons have not changed much since 1903. They are still made from heated paraffin wax and beef tallow mixed with pigments. They are cooked and molded into individually wrapped sticks and assigned winsome names. They still have the stearic acid smell.

Coloring is not just for children. Pull out a few broken pieces, called “leftolas” and get busy!

Doris Montag

Doris Montag

Doris is a collector, a storyteller and a free-lance curator whose passion is unlocking the stories in collections from family or private individuals. She develops and installs exhibits in small museums, libraries, and public spaces. And she writes about her experiences in her column, The History of Ordinary Things. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer