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Pigments of Our Imagination

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | April 14, 2012

“We could learn a lot from crayons; some are sharp, some are pretty, some are dull while others bright, some have weird names, but they all have learned to live together in the same box.”
Robert Fulghum

“When you step onto the factory floor, the first thing you notice is the familiar smell.  It is the distinctive whiff of wax, a scent dyed bright with color.  It smells like childhood.  It’s an old smell, largely unchanged in 100 years.”

With those words, Jeff Gammage begins his article “Pigments of Our Imaginations” in The Philadelphia Inquirer (August 24, 2003) which captures “100 facts to mark Crayola’s 100 years.”

Since moving back to Pennsylvania we have visited The Crayola Factory in Easton, Pennsylvania twice with our grandson, Noah.  Both times that familiar smell has brought back a million childhood memories. Watching him as he navigated that amazing world of color reminded me that crayons create a bridge across the generations. 

It all started when two cousins, Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith started a company in 1885 as Binney & Smith.  Initial products were colorants for industrial use, including red oxide pigments used in barn paint and carbon black chemicals used for making tires black and extending their useful lifespan.  Their product earned them a gold-medal award at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Also in 1900 the company added production of slate school pencils.  Binney’s experiments led to the invention of the first dustless white chalk, for which the company won a gold medal at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

But it was Binney and his wife, Alice, who developed the famous line of wax crayons which were launched on June 10, 1903 which were sold under the name “Crayola.”  The Crayola name was coined by Alice Binney, a former school teacher.  It comes from “craie,” French for “chalk,” and “ola” for “oleaginous” or “oily.” 

Teachers desperately wanted safe and affordable wax crayons because the ones imported from Europe were too expensive.  With this invention, the company produced its first orange-and-green box of eight Crayola crayons.  Over the years the size of the box and the breadth of the color spectrum have continued to grow.  In 1958 a watershed moment was reached when the 64-color pack was introduced with the company’s first crayon sharpener built into the box.  The largest box today holds 120 crayons.

Crayola makes about 3 billion crayons a year or 12 million crayons every workday.  The average child in the United States will wear down 730 crayons by his 10th birthday.  Those stubs are informally known as “leftolas.”

Today, the Crayola Company makes everything from stationery to disposable cameras and from children’s clothes to backpacks.  But crayons are still their most famous product. 

In 1996, Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood visited Crayola to officially produce the 100 billionth crayon.  The crayon named blue ribbon, was inserted in a box and sold to the public as part of a contest.  The box was purchased by Darlene Martin, a grandmother from Port Orchard, Washington who sold it back to the company for a $100,000 bond. 

What’s believed to be the world’s largest crayon collection is owned by a retired Navy doctor William Mahaffey of Sandusky, Ohio.  He has more than 725 colors, all catalogued by manufacturer and hue.  He has never colored with any of them. 

In 1998 the W. S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating Crayola crayons. 

Crayons even inspire people as metaphors for life.  On the negative side, Bill Waterman said, “A box of new crayons!  Now they’re all pointy, lined up in order, bright and perfect.  Soon they’ll be a bunch of ground down, rounded, indistinguishable stumps, missing their wrappers and smudged with other colors.  Sometimes life seems unbearably tragic.” 

I prefer, however, what RuPaul said, “Life is about using the whole box of crayons.”  Or as Al Hirschfeld observed, “Artists are just children who refuse to put down their crayons.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu