Works in Wax

Whether it's 'Burnt Sienna' or 'Dirt,' America's tots still love crayons

To paraphrase a current author, some of life's biggest mysteries I encountered in kindergarten. For example:

Can anyone tell red-orange from orange-red?

Why does midnight blue look so mysterious?

What is sienna and why do they have to burn it?

If you don't recognize these names, then you haven't lived an American childhood. As any child can tell you, red-orange, midnight blue, and burnt sienna are crayon colors. Crayola crayon colors - the best-known, best-selling sticks of colored wax on the planet.

Last month, Binney & Smith, the Easton, Pa., company that manufactures Crayola, made its 100 billionth crayon. Despite all the diversions of modern childhood - television, computer games, even electronic art sets - the old-fashioned notion of coloring endures. Today's crayons may come in more colors and styles, but the basic principles in making them haven't changed in decades.

On this particular day at the Crayola factory, Dave Butz is making "washable" red crayons. The process begins in a big heated vat where liquid paraffin wax and a pigment mixture are kept warm.

Mr. Butz starts by turning on a faucet that dumps a slightly gooey red mixture into a bucket. Butz pours that over two long metal trays peppered with holes. The red wax oozes into the empty pores, which are deep and thin and tipped at the bottom - just like a crayon.

When the holes are filled, Butz scrapes away the extra wax on the top and waits anywhere from four to seven minutes (depending on the color) for the water-cooled mold to turn the warm wax into a hard crayon. When it's ready, the mold automatically pushes up the hardened wax out of the holes. Up pop 2,400 red crayons.

Butz gathers up the bright sticks, stacks them onto a special shelf, and checks his work. Any crayons with chipped ends or broken tips are sent back to the mixing vat to get reheated and remade. (The tip is especially important because it's not supposed to break even when a child presses down on it with four pounds of pressure.)

Once the flawed crayons are removed, Butz takes a long spatula-shaped paddle and stacks the crayons in preparation for wrapping.

New machines

Years ago, people wrapped and packed the crayons by hand. Today, machines do it all. The crayons go from the wrapping machine to a device which sorts a rainbow of eight colors at a time. The machine shoves the crayons into those familiar cardboard holders, which are then boxed into the popular 64-pack of crayons.

Indeed, even Butz's manufacturing station is old-fashioned. These days it's only used to make specialty crayons, like the washable kind. Regular crayons are made with a molding machine that does all the steps automatically. "We're the last of a vanishing process," Butz says.

Whether made and packaged by man or machine, however, crayons look to be an enduring element in the American child's lexicon. Binney & Smith - which also makes clay, Silly Putty, and paints - turns out 2 billion crayons each year. That's enough to circle the earth's equator 4-1/2 times. Parents buy enough of them in a year to make a giant crayon 35 feet wide and 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.

"I can't tell you 30 years out," says John McCue, Binney & Smith's marketing director for crayons, but "over the next four to five years and even longer, there will be room for these types of products." Children from age 2 to 8 still spend an average 28 minutes a day coloring, he says. By age 10, an American child has typically worn down 730 crayons.

Little Jack Hanson is still working on wearing down his first few. The Pittsburgh area two-year-old seems at first more interested in throwing his plastic purple ball than in drawing. But as the nursery attendant colors away, he keeps coming over to look until he finally picks up a fat orange crayon and sends it skidding along the white-lined paper.

(Coloring tip for two-year-olds - and parents who've forgotten how: Push hard on your crayon to get the brightest color. If your fingers get tired, that's a good sign.)

Dissatisfied with thin orange lines, Jack picks up an orange marker - a Crayola mini-stamper that creates a smiley face when you press down on the tip. Jack tries drawing with it instead. More faint orange lines.

Perhaps the most enduring mystery about crayons is not that children like Jack will grow to like them, but that later in life they will grow not to. A few years after they master their first art tool, children stop coloring and move on to other things. It's a riddle that Binney & Smith hasn't been able to solve. "Two to 6 is the core crayon age," says Mr. McCue. "Girls stay in it longer than boys, but eventually they [all] leave."

So to use crayons as an adult requires a streak of nonconformity.

"I still use crayons when I grade papers," says Marshall Fishwick, professor of communication studies and humanities at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. Yellow or gold usually stands for an A, green for a B, F is black. The color reinforces the message of the letter grade, he says.

Ann McGillicuddy-DeLisi, a professor of development psychology, made two crayon murals as a graduate student, and they still hang in her Lafayette College office in Easton, Pa. "It's just like a giant coloring book except on cloth," she says.

Brian Speer, associate director of communications at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, remembers the stares he drew when he made a crayon illustration for a college magazine.

"People were coming, looking at me oddly while I was frantically scribbling with crayons," he recalls.

One reason most artists don't use crayons may be that they incorporate artificial pigments, says Ann Pibal, assistant professor of painting at the New York State College of Ceramics in Alfred, N.Y. But the cultural barrier is probably bigger. "Maybe it's hard to use a crayon as an artist without invoking the child or a younger state of mind."

An American original

Curiously, crayons are almost entirely a North American phenomenon. Although Binney & Smith markets them worldwide, sales in Europe and Asia are not large. Europeans grow up using colored pencils, not crayons, McCue says.

The crayon might not have made it big in the United States either had a New York pigment company not decided to diversify. Edwin Binney and his nephew, C. Harold Smith, already marketed a black pigment called lampblack, shoe polish, and printing ink. The company had recently begun selling slate pencils and "dustless" chalk to schools.

So when teachers began complaining that crayons were either poor-quality or too expensive, Binney & Smith set out to transform its crate-marking black crayon into a colorful school item. There were several obstacles. The crayons had to be non-toxic, so the chemists had to find new pigments and, in some cases, make them up themselves. The manufacturing process was hard to master.

But in 1903, the company unveiled its first eight-pack of crayons: black, blue, brown, green, orange, red, violet, and yellow. It was Mr. Binney's wife, Alice, who came up with the name "Crayola," combining the word "craie" (the French word for chalk) with "ola" (from the word "oleaginous," which describes the oily wax). At a nickel per pack, schools and parents could afford to buy them.

Over the years, Binney & Smith expanded the line of colors. The 48-pack appeared in 1949; the famous 64-pack, a decade later. By 1984, the Binney & Smith heirs had moved the corporate headquarters to Easton, beside its manufacturing plant, and sold off a majority of the company's stock. Rather than risk a hostile takeover, the family went to Hallmark Cards, the greeting-card giant, which agreed to acquire the company.

The crayon business remained quiet and steady until 1990, when Binney & Smith accidentally created a public uproar. It retired eight colors. Gone were such stalwarts as green blue, lemon yellow, violet blue, and orange red. (So maybe it wasn't much different from red orange after all.) In their places came brighter alternatives, such as jungle green, vivid tangerine, and fuchsia.

"We got tremendous attention from consumers," McCue says. "We knew color was something that people had a very close affinity for." But nothing prepared the company for the backlash at retiring old favorites.

The company capitalized on the attention by inviting the public to name 16 new colors in a contest. More than 150,000 people wrote in, some of them going into great detail about their name creations. In came denim, mauvelous, macaroni and cheese, and others for the 1993 pack - a 90th anniversary issue - containing an unprecedented 96 colors.

Hi-tech doodling

The company also introduced several new kinds of crayons: glitter crayons, "changeables" (the colors change if you draw over them), and magic-scent crayons. The scent is enclosed in tiny capsules embedded in the wax, which are released only when a child begins to draw. So it's the crayon drawing that smells, not the crayon itself.

Neverthelesss, the technology got Binney & Smith in hot water when a consumer group in New York charged that the scents were encouraging children to eat the crayons. Binney & Smith finally removed the tasty-smelling scents and replaced them with less edible options like "leather jacket," "new car," and - to the delight of toddlers everywhere - "dirt."

Until 1996, 20,000 people a year visited Binney & Smith to see how crayons are made. The factory wasn't big enough to handle big crowds, so the company had to turn another 40,000 people away each year. So in July, it will open a demonstration factory to accommodate all its visitors.

To inaugurate the facility, the company is planning to invite everyone who has a color in their name to Easton for a celebration. "We see a parade where all the Browns are marching and they're following a UPS truck," says Tracey Moran, a spokeswoman. The company may also invite celebrities.

"It's amazing how many famous people have color in their names," Ms. Moran says, pointing to comedienne Whoopi Goldberg, former baseball great Pete Rose, and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. The mayor of Easton, Tom Goldsmith, is also an eager supporter.

There's no word, though, on how many Siennas will be showing up.


Colors available beginning 1903

(Number of colors: 8)

Black Orange

Blue Red

Brown Violet

Green Yellow

Colors available 1949-1957

(Total number of colors: 48)

Apricot Orange

Bittersweet Orange Red

Black Orange Yellow

Blue Orchid

Blue Green Periwinkle

Blue Violet Pine Green

Brick Red Prussian Blue*

Brown Red

Burnt Sienna Red Orange

Carnation Pink Red Violet

Cornflower Salmon

Flesh* Sea Green

Gold Silver

Gray Spring Green

Green Tan

Green Blue Thistle

Green Yellow Turquoise Blue

Lemon Yellow Violet (Purple)

Magenta Violet Blue

Mahogany Violet Red

Maize White

Maroon Yellow

Melon Yellow Green

Olive Green Yellow Orange

* Crayola changed the name of "Flesh" to "Peach" because of civil rights concerns. "Prussian Blue" was changed to "Midnight Blue" because the company felt children wouldn't know what Prussia was.

Colors added in 1958

(Total number of colors: 64)

Aquamarine Lavender

Blue Gray Mulberry

Burnt Orange Navy Blue

Cadet Blue Plum

Copper Raw Sienna

Forest Green Raw Umber

Goldenrod Sepia

Indian Red Sky Blue

Fluorescent colors added in 1972

(Total number of colors: 72)

Atomic Tangerine Outrageous Orange

Blizzard Blue Screamin' Green

Hot Magenta Shocking Pink

Laser Lemon Wild Watermelon

Fluorescent colors added in 1990

(Total number of colors: 80)

Electric Lime Razzle Dazzle Rose

Magic Mint Sunglow

Purple Pizzazz Unmellow Yellow

Radical Red Neon Carrot

Colors replaced in 1990

Retired Replacement

Green Blue Cerulean

Orange Red Vivid Tangerine

Orange Yellow Jungle Green

Violet Blue Fuchsia

Maize Dandelion

Lemon Yellow Teal Blue

Blue Gray Royal Purple

Raw Umber Wild Strawberry

Colors added in 1993

(Total number of colors: 96)

Asparagus Razzmatazz

Cerise Robin's Egg Blue

Denim Shamrock

Granny Smith Apple Tickle Me Pink

Macaroni and Cheese Timber Wolf

Mauvelous Tropical Rain Forest

Pacific Blue Tumbleweed

Purple Mountain's Majesty Wisteria

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