Crayons are a ubiquitous part of childhood and a familiar tool for creativity and expression. But have you ever wondered where crayons come from and how they were invented? The history of crayons spans over a century, with roots dating back to the 19th century. While early versions were made of chalk or charcoal, modern crayons are made from paraffin wax and non-toxic pigments. The invention of crayons transformed children’s art and continues to inspire young imaginations today. In this article, we will explore the origins and evolution of crayons over time.
Early Colored Chalks and Wax Crayons
The earliest direct ancestor of the crayon emerged in the late 18th century in the form of colored chalks. These were produced by rolling and compressing a combination of clay, chalk, and various color pigments into sticks. Colored chalks were initially used in schools to teach drawing and handwriting. However, their fragility and crumbly nature made them inconvenient for children’s use. By the mid-1800s, industrial advancements allowed for the introduction of thicker, sturdier crayons made from charcoal mixed with oil or wax binders. These were sometimes called wax crayons or writing crayons and came wrapped in paper. They laid the groundwork for more sophisticated wax crayons to come.
The Commercialization of Wax Crayons
Wax crayons continued to evolve with the use of paraffin wax. Paraffin wax is derived from petroleum, and its discovery in 1830 made it readily available for commercial production. One of the first people to capitalize on paraffin wax for crayons was Joseph Dixon, an inventor and entrepreneur. In 1827, Dixon purchased a mass of graphite that was later named the Black Lead Mine. He saw its potential for making pencils and developed a method to cut and shape graphite sticks that were then wrapped in wood. Dixon’s graphite pencils were a huge success.
Inspired by Dixon’s earlier efforts, his son Joseph Dixon Jr. introduced the first commercially viable wax crayons in 1864. Dixon designed a special extruding machine to cut and shape paraffin wax into crayon sticks. His wax crayons were non-toxic and far superior to previous versions made from charcoal or chalk. Dixon sold his crayons under the name “Dixon’s Crayone.” Schools and artists eagerly embraced the colorful, versatile crayons. However, high costs still limited access to wax crayons for many households at the time.
The Rise of Crayon Manufacturing
Other companies jumped into wax crayon manufacturing not long after Dixon, driven both by demand and by the expiration of Dixon’s pivotal crayon patents in the late 1870s. The production of crayons started scaling rapidly. In 1885, cousins Edwin Binney and Harold Smith established the partnership of Binney & Smith in New York City. They purchased the Chapters-Handy Company owned by Joseph Chapel and made it their crayon production facility.
With Binney’s background in pigment chemistry and Smith’s expertise in marketing, the duo transformed crayon manufacturing. Binney created an improved paraffin wax formula that added a non-toxic mineral known as talc, making the crayons sturdier and easier to work with. Smith had the brilliant idea of marketing their crayons with catchy brand names based on colors rather than generic labels. This strategy helped Binney & Smith crayons stand out. Their “Crayola” brand debuted in 1903 with bright colors like Gold, Silver, and Copper.
By the early 1900s, many other firms like the American Crayon Company and Prang Educational Co. had sprouted up to produce crayons. Competition drove innovation as companies experimented with different formulas, pigments, shapes, and labeling. Crayon manufacturing shifted from small operations to mass production. Prices also dropped significantly, allowing middle-class families to afford quality crayons for their children for the first time.
The Evolution of Crayon Design
Innovations in crayon design propelled further growth in popularity and accessibility. One of the big early improvements was paper wrapping. Originally, wax crayons were sold unwrapped. The first known individually wrapped crayons came from Binney & Smith in 1865. Wrapping served multiple important purposes. It prevented crayons from breaking and damaging other crayons in the box when transported. Wrappers also enabled brand name labeling as a marketing tool. Finally, wrap helped strengthen thin crayons.
Other design changes also enhanced the artistic possibilities and convenience of crayons. Crayons were made thicker, facilitating an easier grip for children. Bigger boxes with more color variety became available. Binney & Smith introduced Crayola’s recognizable box of 8 crayons in 1903, followed by boxes of 16, 24, 48, and 64 crayons over the next decades. Built-in sharpener slots were added to boxes starting in 1939. Crayon dimensions evolved from thinner sticks to fatter barrels more suitable for small hands. By the 1950s, Crayola had rolled out the classic conical shape we associate with crayons today.
The Growth of Crayola
Out of the many crayon makers, Crayola became the brand most synonymous with the crayon over the 20th century. Several factors contributed to Crayola’s rise and dominance:
– Creative brand marketing – Calling crayon colors by imaginative names like Cornflower, Timberwolf, and Macaroni & Cheese helped the Crayola brand establish an emotional connection with children.
– Teacher relationships – Binney & Smith built strong bonds with educators by providing school discounts. They positioned Crayola as the classroom crayon.
– Innovative packaging – Crayola pioneered bright, colorful, and kid-friendly packaging with the recognizable yellow and green boxes.
– Consumer safety – Crayola developed a reputation for using high-quality, non-toxic ingredients optimized for young users.
– Mass availability – Large-scale production and distribution made Crayola crayons conveniently accessible coast-to-coast.
– Longevity – Crayola maintained consistency and built brand equity over many decades. Children who used Crayola grew up and purchased them for their own kids.
– Diversity – Crayola regularly introduced new specialty lines like washable crayons, smelly crayons, and multicultural crayon sets to appeal to different markets.
By 2010, Crayola controlled over 80% of the U.S. crayon market. Their 100 billionth crayon was produced that year, a testament to the company’s phenomenal success and longevity. While competitors have come and gone, Crayola remains the #1 crayon brand worldwide. Though other materials like markers and paint have risen around it, the classic wax crayon is still a must-have for every child’s creativity.
The Significance of Crayons in Education and Child Development
Since their earliest use in classrooms, crayons have held special importance as an educational tool. Affordable crayons enabled 19th century teachers to transition students from slate tablets to paper. Wax crayons provided superior color quality to chalk and were washable, making them ideal for teaching art and handwriting skills. Their instant feedback also helped engage young students. Crayon use quickly spread from schools to general home life.
Today, crayons remain a staple of pre-school education, allowing children to explore color, fine motor control, and visual expression from a young age. They teach children about blending, shading, and dimension. Crayons have also shown lasting benefits for cognitive development. Toddlers and preschoolers who engage in more art with crayons tend to have stronger spatial reasoning abilities as they grow up. Beyond education, crayons promote open-ended creativity, self-confidence, and imagination. The pure joy and freedom children feel in using crayons to create worlds of their own is universal across generations. Crayons have left an undeniable imprint on the collective memory of childhood.
Crayon Innovations and Trends
Crayon technology and design continues advancing today. Some recent innovations include:
– Twistable crayons – Twistable crayons eliminate the need for peeling and sharpening. Crayola Twistables were introduced in 1997.
– Giant crayons – Extra-large crayons help little hands grasp and hold for coloring. Jumbo Crayola crayons debuted in 1976.
– Erasable crayons – For mess-free coloring, erasable crayons allow mistakes to be wiped away. Crayola Erasables were launched in 2010.
– Scented crayons – Crayons with fruity and aromatic scents make coloring multisensory. Silly Scents by Crayola arrived in 1994.
– Glitter crayons – Crayons with sparkling metallic glitter or gel effects add shine and shimmer to artwork.
– Custom crayons – Personalized crayons with names, labels, colors, or photos can be custom ordered online.
– Adult coloring books – Therapeutic coloring books with intricate designs catered to adults and teens help relieve stress.
The popularity of adult coloring books and custom crayons show that while crayons are integral to childhood, their appeal is timeless. Crayon manufacturers also aim to reflect diversity and multiculturalism. In 1992, Crayola released a 32-crayon Multicultural set with skin-tone colors dubbed “flesh” crayons. They have since changed their color names to be more inclusive.
Crayon Art and Collectibles
Crayons have made their mark not just in education but in the art world as well. In the 1970s, Swiss sculptor Dieter Roth pioneered building artworks from melted crayon bits. Contemporary artists like Christian Faur continue experimenting with crayons as a medium today, using them to imitate oil paints. Large crayon sculptures are a genre of street art. The Crayola Experience museum in Pennsylvania has over 70 hands-on attractions exploring crayon innovations. Rare boxes of old Crayola crayons in pristine condition are sought-after collector’s items. On eBay, one 1900s box sold for over $1000! Crayons clearly hold artistic and historical value beyond just child’s play.
While humble, the crayon is far more influential than many realize. Since the first mass-produced wax crayons of the late 1800s, crayons have only continued to burgeon in popularity and variety. From Dixon to Binney & Smith, many key industrial advancements paved the way for crayons to become the ubiquitous, affordable, and beloved childhood tool we know so well. Crayons enabled creative educational opportunities for young learners across America and around the world. No standardized school supply elicits quite the same excitement and memories as the 64-count box of crayons. The lives of billions of children have been enriched by coloring, doodling, and imagining with these sticks of wax. Crayons will certainly continue lighting up the minds of children for generations to come.