Many of us used crayons growing up as kids. The familiar smell of opening up a fresh box of crayons and coloring books brings back fond memories. But have you ever wondered, when were crayons first invented? Crayons have been around for a surprisingly long time. Let’s take a journey through history to uncover the origins of one of childhood’s most beloved toys.
The History of Crayons Dates Back Thousands of Years
Evidence shows that early forms of crayons first appeared in Europe during the middle ages. People would use chalk and charcoal to make drawings on cave walls and rocks. Some of the earliest known drawings made with these primitive crayons have been found in the Lascaux caves in France. These cave paintings date back over 30,000 years!
By the 1500s, pastels had emerged as an art medium. Pastels are an early version of the modern crayon, made of dry sticks of pigment rather than oily paints. Soft pastel crayons made of chalk and pigment became popular with Renaissance artists as a new drawing and sketching tool.
In the late 1700s, various efforts were made to turn drawing into a more organized activity for children. Coloring books designed specifically for children began appearing in Europe, filled with outline drawings meant to be colored in. Wax and oil-based crayons could be used to fill in these drawing books, but they were just basic sticks of colored wax.
The First Crayons Were Made of Charcoal and Chalk
The charcoal and chalk sticks used by early artists and children were far from the crayons we know today. Making softer, more child-friendly crayons began in the early 1800s. Various scientists and artists experimented with making wax writing instruments that were easier to use than paints and chalk.
In the 1820s, British chemist William Addison invented a wax-based teardrop shaped crayon by combining powdered pigments with wax and shaping the wax around a string wick. These were called Addison crayons, but they were more like sidewalk chalk rather than crayons meant for drawing.
By the late 1800s, pencil makers in Europe like the Conté sisters in France and C. Alois Senefelder in Germany had created their own brands of wax crayons. While wax crayons were now becoming popular art supplies, most still had to be individually hand-crafted at a high cost.
The Invention of Platt R. Spencer Created Modern Crayons
The first crayons resembling those we use today emerged at the dawn of the 1900s. The modern American crayon began with an artistic, entrepreneurial man named Platt Rogers Spencer. He coined the term “crayon” from the French word craie (chalk) to describe his new art tool invention in 1902.
Spencer figured out a faster way to produce high-quality wax crayons at scale using automated machines. He created crayon sticks by melting paraffin wax and mixing it with powder pigments, then pouring the liquid crayon into a mold and cooling it into the classic crayon shape.
These molded wax crayons were a huge improvement over previous crayon efforts. They were affordable for classrooms, smoother to write with than pastels and chalk, and didn’t smudge like paint. Spencer’s patented technique revolutionized the crayon, making crayons widely available in schools for the first time.
The Crayon Manufacturing Business Boomed in the 1900s
Platt R. Spencer launched the first large scale crayon company, but he soon had lots of competition. By 1903, over 300 different brands of crayons were being produced in America. The most iconic and successful brand was Crayola, created in 1903 by cousins Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith.
The Crayola brand name was coined by Edwin’s wife Alice, who creatively combined the French word craie with the Latin root ola to suggest the crayon rolled over paper. Crayola’s first box of 8 different color crayons sold for only 5 cents, making them very popular school supplies.
Over the next decades, many new American crayon companies cropped up. Popular early 1900s brands included American Crayon Company, Prang Educational Co., Cerolia Crayon Company, and Laurentian Pencil Company. Competition drove innovation and manufacturing improvements resulting in stronger, smoother, and brighter crayons.
Crayon Innovations Expanded the Color Palette
Early crayon boxes from Crayola and other brands included only 8 to 16 different color options. But the crayon color palette gradually grew decade-by-decade as new pigments were discovered and new crayon manufacturing methods allowed more color variations.
Here’s a table showing how the available crayon color count increased over the years:
|Decade||# of Crayon Colors|
Crayola released one of its largest expansions in 1958, when its 64-color box first included unique crayons like magenta, gold, silver, and sky blue. By the 1990s, Crayola’s biggest box of crayons contained over 200 different colors!
New Crayon Types Were Created Over the Years
Beyond just expanding the color selection, inventors and manufacturers also began creating specialty crayon types:
- Watercolor crayons – These first appeared in the 1920s and allowed coloring with water for a paint-like effect.
- Fluorescent crayons – Glow-in-the-dark fluorescent crayons emerged in the 1950s.
- Washable crayons – For mess-free coloring, washable crayons were developed in the 1980s using soap-based ingredients.
- Scented crayons – Crayons with fruity and savory scents became popular in the 1990s.
Experimenting with crayon materials and manufacturing techniques unlocked new capabilities over the decades.
The Computer Age Brought Digital Drawing and Design
Crayons have remained a staple art supply even as technology has evolved. While computers, graphic design software, and digital illustrations have emerged, the classic crayon still has its appeal.
Crayons are now more crafty than ever, with DIY crayon crafts and crayon melting art projects trending on social media. Crayola now offers digital apps and tools as well, showing how crayons can creatively adapt to the digital age.
While fashions change, crayons are simple traditional toys that have stood the test of time. The joy of grabbing a crayon and coloring outside the lines is nostalgic fun that never seems to get old, no matter how old we get.
From ancient cave drawings to the first mass-produced crayons to the high-tech world today, crayons have colored history for generations and will continue putting smiles on kids’ faces.Tracing the evolution of the crayon paints a picture of creative innovation across centuries and cultures. Next time you pick up a crayon, appreciate you are holding an artistic history lesson in your hand!