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What were crayons originally made for?

What were crayons originally made for?

Crayons have become a staple in children’s lives for coloring, drawing, and creative expression. The familiar sticks of waxy color are ubiquitous in schools, homes, restaurants, waiting rooms, and anywhere kids gather. But before crayons became a childhood rite of passage, they served a very different purpose.

The original crayons were not made for coloring books or craft projects. In fact, they weren’t intended for children at all. Crayons have been around since the early 19th century, but their intended use was industrial, not artistic.

Over time, crayon makers realized the potential for their products to tap into a new market – children. By clever marketing and product development, crayons made the leap from industrial applications to kids’ hands.

The evolution of crayons from pigmented industrial sticks to coloring essentials for children traces an intriguing path. Understanding the origins and original uses of crayons provides insight into why crayons became an iconic part of childhood.

The History of Crayons

References to wax writing tools date back thousands of years, but the crayons we know today trace their origins to the early 1800s in Europe. It was around this time that various artists, scientists, and inventors began experimenting with mixing pigments with waxes. They realized wax provided an ideal medium to safely work with pigments and dyes.

One of the first recorded uses of wax crayons comes from Italy in the early 1800s. Carlo Stefano Arborio di Breme, an Italian chemist, developed a wax-based writing tool he called the sanguine conté crayon. Conté crayons, named after the place they were invented, contained a mixture of graphite and clay wrapped in paper. However, they were more similar to pastels than modern crayons.

Around the same period, different inventors in France began developing wax writing instruments for various uses. Nicolas-Jacques Conté invented the conté crayon in 1795. Conté crayons contained graphite mixed with clay, just like Arborio’s version.

Other pioneers working to develop wax crayons included Benjamin Leduc, who created a grease pencil, and Mr. Sergent, who produced a crayon-like lithographic stone marking crayon. While not true crayons, these wax writing tools paved the way for more innovations with wax, pigments, and dyes.

However, the first recognizable crayons emerged in the early 1800s from a company based in Danzig, Prussia. This company, L. & C. Hardtmuth, specialized in artists’ supplies. Around 1804, they began commercially producing wax crayons for artists.

These new crayons blended pigments with tallow, wax, and oil to create sturdy, thick sticks perfect for coloring and drawing. The formula also included additives like gypsum and gum arabic to improve stability. Hardtmuth’s crayons marked the first time colored wax sticks were produced specifically as artists’ tools.

After Hardtmuth’s early crayons, wax crayon technology continued improving during the 1800s. Important innovations included:

  • 1828 – Joseph Lemercier produces the first French-made crayons, using a mix of tallow and black lead.
  • 1852 – Hardtmuth open their Koh-I-Noor factory for crayon production in Vienna, which operated until the 1990s.
  • 1858 – The first wax crayons enter the United States from Europe.
  • 1864 – Joseph Binney develops a new formula using charcoal and oil to produce dustless crayons.

During the late 1800s, American crayon pioneers like Joseph Binney paved the way for commercial crayon production in the US. Binney’s company, Binney & Smith, produced their first Crayolas in 1903, which would become the iconic Crayola crayons.

While most early crayons were developed for artists, they quickly gained popularity among children. Affordable wax crayons provided a fun, convenient coloring option compared to costlier paints and dyes. By the late 1800s, companies realized the potential for marketing crayons to children.

Original Uses of Crayons

Crayons were not originally intended as a fun pastime for children. The first crayons served distinctly practical, industrial purposes related to writing, marking, and coloring.

Some of the primary original uses of early crayons included:

Industrial Marking

The sturdy, pigmented wax sticks were ideal for marking crates, barrels, and other industrial items. With early crayons, factory workers could easily mark contents, locations, ownership, weights, transportation routes, and other details onto their products. Wax crayons created neat, legible marks that withstood handling and abrasion.


Stonemasons found wax crayons useful for marking measurements, cuts, and details onto stone. Similar to industrial applications, the crayons provided durable marks on stone that were resistant to wear. Marks could easily be made directly onto stone before cutting and chiseling.


Metalworkers utilized crayons to mark hot iron and steel. The heat-resistant wax provided visible marks to guide cutting metal precisely. Marks made with grease crayons could withstand hot temperatures without smudging or erasing.

Seamstresses & Tailors

Dressmakers and tailors used crayons for marking measurements and patterns onto fabric. Transferring markings from patterns onto fabric required durable, non-smudging lines – an ideal application for wax crayons before modern fabric markers and pens.

Writing & Drawing

While not the primary uses initially, crayons still provided a practical tool for writing, drawing, and artistic work. Crayons delivered rich pigment in a convenient, clean format. Their wax composition prevented mess compared to working with loose pigments. Crayons gave artists and designers a useful tool for preliminary sketches and drawings.

The main advantages of early crayons that made them useful across industrial settings included:

  • Durability – Marks withstand rubbing, abrasion, and handling without smudging.
  • Legibility – Crayons create neat, precise, easy-to-read marks.
  • Versatility – Crayons work on a wide variety of surfaces like paper, wood, stone, metal, and fabric.
  • Pigmentation – Rich, saturated color for visibility.
  • Heat Resistance – Marks retain integrity at hot metalworking temperatures.
  • Portability – Compact sticks for easy transport and accessibility.

These unique advantages of crayon wax enabled their widespread use before becoming popular coloring tools.

Evolution of Crayons into Children’s Toys

Once crayons proved their usefulness for commercial applications, manufacturers realized their appeal extended to children as well. Affordable wax crayons provided a safer, less messy alternative to the paints and dyes available at the time.

A few key developments facilitated the evolution of crayons from industrial tools to childhood staples:

Non-Toxic Formulas

Early pigments and dyes contained toxic substances like lead, mercury, and carbon. Developing non-toxic formulas opened the door for marketing crayons to children. Binney & Smith in the US pioneered safe wax formulas suitable for kids.

Molding Technology

New machines automated crayon molding, enabling mass production of crayons in bright colors. Before molding, crayons were manually poured and shaped in molds. Automation let companies produce crayons in higher volumes at lower costs.

Clever Marketing

Crayon makers leveraged catching brand names and packaging to target children and parents. Names like Crayola invoked creativity and fun. Crayon boxes became colorful works of art. Marketing shifted crayon appeal from industrial to child-friendly.

Retail Availability

Making crayons available at Five and Dime stores brought crayons within reach of more families. Retail availability in everyday stores cemented crayons’ place as an affordable children’s item.

Introducing Art Sets & Coloring Books

Pairing crayons with coloring books, paper, and complementary art supplies encouraged more creative uses. Complete art sets bundled crayons with coloring essentials into a unified hobby.

By the early 1900s, crayons completed their transformation from industrial commodity to childhood pastime. With safety, scale, and savvy marketing, crayons found their calling.

Crayon Timeline

Year Event
1800s Early crayon experiments in Europe using wax, tallow, pigments.
1804 L. & C. Hardtmuth commercial production of crayons begins.
1828 Joseph Lemercier produces French crayons using tallow and graphite.
1852 Hardtmuth opens the Koh-I-Noor crayon factory.
1858 First wax crayons imported to United States.
1864 Joseph Binney develops dustless charcoal & oil crayon.
1880s Crayons gain popularity among children.
1903 Binney & Smith produce the first Crayola crayons.
1930s Crayola expands to 64 colors and first crayon sharpener.
1950s First scented crayons introduced.


Tracing crayons back to their origins reveals an unexpectedly practical and industrial history. Far from the colorful childhood icons they are today, the first crayons emerged as durable industrial tools.

Creative innovation and savvy marketing transformed crayons into the ubiquitous coloring staple cherished by generations of children. Next time you pick up a crayon, you can appreciate the crayon’s gradual evolution from factories and workshops to elementary school classrooms and playrooms around the world.