Crayons are a beloved art supply used by children and adults alike to add color to drawings and other artistic projects. But who first invented crayons and what inspired their creation? The history of crayons stretches back centuries and involves innovators experimenting with different materials and techniques to create the waxy, colorful drawing tools we know today. Understanding the origins and evolutions of crayons sheds light on their enduring popularity and cultural significance.
The earliest direct ancestors of modern crayons emerged in Europe during the mid-1500s. Before this time, artists would typically use paints, inks, or charcoals to add color to their works. Then around 1564, a German pastor and artist named Petrus Steiger is credited with conceiving what many consider the first true crayons. Steiger combined a type of soap, red chalk, and charcoal to make sturdy sticks ideal for marking stone. People also call his invention “soapstone” crayons. While primarily intended for stonemasons to mark designs on stone, these primitive crayons laid important groundwork for the art crayons to come.
Another milestone came in the 1600s in Italy, where people fashioned small pastel crayons made of powdered pigments mixed with a binder like gum arabic. While too brittle to trace outlines, these pastels were highly pigmented and the first crayons capable of creating fine artwork. Their soft, vivid colors inspired famous Baroque artists like Degas and Rembrandt to experiment with pastel crayons in their masterpieces. Even today, many visual artists still appreciate pastels’ radiant hues.
So by the 1600s, the basic concept of waxy or dry drawing sticks had already emerged in Europe. But crayons were still handicrafts, not mass produced. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s in the United States that people started manufacturing crayons like we know them today.
Industrialization of crayons
The production of crayons, like many goods, was revolutionized by industrialization in the 1800s. The first major commercial success came from Joseph W. Binney, an American printer and inventor. In 1857, Binney partnered with his cousin Edwin Binney and created the Peekskill Chemical Works company focused on making pigments. The Binneys wanted to produce an inexpensive, accessible coloring tool for children that could work on any surface. After much experimentation, they developed a charcoal and petroleum based crayon they called the “Crayola” – a conjunction of the French word “craie” (meaning chalk) and “ola” from oleaginous, or oily.
The Binneys’ Crayola crayons had a smooth, even consistency and just the right balance of pigment, oil, and filler ingredients like talc and kaolin. A wrapper around each stick kept the crayons neat and portable. With quality materials, consistent production, and smart marketing, Crayola crayons quickly became favorites among young American artists. The Crayola brand still dominates the crayon market today.
While Crayola set the standard, other new companies entered the increasingly lucrative crayon trade in the late 1800s. In 1884, cousins Edwin Munroe and George Steward co-founded the American Crayon Company. They leveraged an innovative hydraulic press to mass produce crayons molded under high pressure, which made their crayons sturdier than competitors. With lower production costs, the American Crayon Company could offer large wax crayons at bigger lengths for just a penny each. Their crayons were sold under the brand Prang.
So during the Industrial Revolution, crayons transformed from specialized handicrafts to an inexpensive, beloved toy produced on a huge commercial scale. New manufacturing techniques and business acumen were key to their widespread success and adoption.
Evolution of crayon materials and design
While the late 1800s seeded the crayon market, manufacturers continued innovating on crayon materials and design in the 1900s. One major improvement came in 1903, when Crayola developed a new non-toxic, high-grade paraffin wax enhanced with safe powdered pigments. Compared to oil and charcoal, the paraffin wax made crayons less messy, more durable, and vibrant. Petroleum paraffin wax is still the basis for most crayons today.
Companies also introduced unique novelty crayons and design features to stand out. In 1939, Binney & Smith launched its iconic Crayola 64 count box with a built-in sharpener. The satisfying sharpener and tidy rows of crayons became staples of Crayola’s brand identity. Other memorable innovations include fluorescent crayons that glow under black light (introduced in the 1970s), jumbo crayons for little hands, twistable crayons, and plastic-shaped novelty crayons.
More recently, concerns around toxicity and sustainability have influenced crayon design. Art supplies like crayons require lots of pigments, dyes, and petroleum, raising environmental and health concerns. Crayola helped lead the charge for safer products. In 1990, the company reformulated its crayons to replace harmful chemicals with alternative pigments. They also introduced soybean oil based crayons in 1997. Today most major crayon brands offer nontoxic, eco-friendly options.
The cultural significance of crayons
Beyond their colorful history of material innovations, crayons hold a special place in many cultures and minds. For young children, crayons are often their first introduction to making art. The waxy, easy-to-grasp crayons invite scribbling, learning to color inside the lines, and creating miniature masterpieces. Even adults may feel a nostalgic connection to their childhood crayon creations. Beyond sheer familiarity, the iconic look and feel of crayons encourages creativity and self-expression.
Crayons have inspired many memorable cultural moments as well. In 1976, the 64 crayon box served as the theme of the classic children’s book *Harold and the Purple Crayon* by Crockett Johnson. Using just his purple crayon, imaginative Harold draws himself a whole world of adventure. Crayons have also made multiple appearances in popular animated films like Pixar’s *Toy Story* franchise. The cultural footprint of crayons shows their deeper symbolism of imagination, wonder, and the simple joy of creating art.
While humble on the surface, crayons have a rich history and cultural impact. From an inventor mixing soap and charcoal in the 1500s to an animator bringing crayons to life on the silver screen, crayons have kindled creativity for centuries. The march of industrial ingenuity perfected crayons into affordable, colorful icons. No technology has yet matched their charm. For young and old, crayons invite us to pick up their familiar form, sharpen their tip, and fill the world with our own colorful mark.
|1500s||Early ancestral crayons emerge in Europe using chalk, charcoal, wax|
|1600s||Pastel crayons developed in Italy, allow detailed artwork|
|1857||Joseph Binney founds Peekskill Chemical Works, creates first Crayola crayons|
|1884||American Crayon Company uses hydraulic press, makes nickel crayons|
|1903||Crayola adopts paraffin wax and nontoxic pigments|
|1939||Crayola launches 64 crayon box with built-in sharpener|
|1990s||Crayon makers introduce safer, eco-friendly ingredients|