There’s nothing like the smell of a brand-new box of crayons. When I was in elementary school one of my most memorable gifts was a 64-crayon Crayola box with a sharpener built into the back. My husband and I couldn’t wait to show our kids the episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1979 when host Fred Rogers takes his viewers inside the Crayola crayon factory in Easton, Pennsylvania. Inside the factory, hot wax is mixed with a powder that will make the wax hard. Next a pigment is added. The camera then zooms in on yellow wax (the color chosen for the demonstration) pouring into a mold covered in holes. The wax quickly dries enough so that we see all the holes fill up; then bursting from these holes come several yellow sticks. Finally, the wax sticks are double wrapped with Crayola’s iconic label and proceed down the assembly line to be packaged and shipped.
Crayons have been around for a long time, but they weren’t exactly safe to play with until 1903. A nontoxic formula was invented by cousins Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith and sold for a nickel. Five cents got you eight crayons in the original colors (black, brown, blue, red, purple, orange, yellow, and green). The word Crayola was coined by Alice Stead Binney (wife of Edwin Binney); it’s derived from the French word “craie” for “chalk,” and “oleaginous,” or “oily.” It was the first color stick safe for kids, sturdy and affordable.
Crayons are symbols of American childhood that bring us to coloring both inside and outside the lines. Both the packaging and the color names and crayon colors change over time, reflecting social and cultural trends. The box of crayons on the line that day on Mr. Rogers’s television show was the greatly beloved 64-crayon box (invented in 1958). “At Crayola, we divide our history into the pre-sharpener era and the post-sharpener era,” said Dave Hewitt, a vice president at Binney and Smith in a 1998 interview with the New York Times.
Today children have so many coloring options that crayons can sometimes feel a bit passé. For years I have gifted my kids fresh boxes of 64 and they have never seemed impressed. I try to open the perforated box with enthusiasm and ask them to grab one, to no avail. Finally, this year our large plastic bin of crayons was eagerly sought out after the first day of kindergarten. The reason? The only coloring option for our youngest in the classroom is crayons. It’s the time of day she looks forward to the most and when she feels her most creative. “It feels good to have made something,” says Rogers in the episode.
These wax sticks have transformed art education and fostered creativity in schools and homes. Crayola crayons have been owned by Hallmark since 1984 and continue to be a favorite for both nostalgic collectors and artists of all ages. Today, an antique box full of vintage hues can be worth up to $500 and can be found in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum.