The primordial crayon: What could it have been? A hardened piece of reddish clay, or perhaps a charred bone? Whatever its form, we can imagine the joy of cave children who, like youngsters today, wondrously discovered that the right tool could help them create images of saber-tooth tigers and other fascinations of the world around them.
The history of the crayon is not entirely clear. In the form we think of a crayon today, a combination of pigment and wax, the history is relatively short compared to its chalk and colored pencil cousins. But the word crayon goes back to 1644, a diminutive of the French word craie (chalk) and the Latin word creta (Earth).
The notion to combine a form of wax with pigment actually goes back thousands of years. The Egyptians perfected a technique using hot beeswax combined with colored pigment to bind color into stone in a process known as encaustic painting. A heat source was then used to “burn in” and fix the image in place. This method, also employed by the Romans, the Greeks and even indigenous people in the Philippines around 1600-1800, is still used today. However, the process wasn’t used to make crayons into a form intended to be held and colored with and was therefore ineffective to use in a classroom or as crafts for children.
Contemporary crayons are purported to have originated in Europe where some of the first cylinder shaped crayons were made with charcoal and oil. Pastels are an art medium having roots with the modern crayon and stem back to Leonardo da Vinci in 1495. Conté crayons, out of Paris, are a hybrid between a pastel and a conventional crayon; used since the late 1790s as a drawing crayon for artists. Later, various hues of powdered pigment eventually replaced the primary charcoal ingredient found in most early 19th century product. Joseph Lemercier (born Paris 1803—died 1884), considered by some of his contemporaries to be “the soul of lithography”, was also one of the founders of the modern crayon. Through his Paris business circa 1828 he produced a variety of crayon and color related products. But even as those in Europe were discovering that substituting wax for the oil strengthened the crayon, various efforts in the United States were also developing.
The initial era of wax crayons saw a number of companies and products competing for the lucrative education and artist markets. In addition to the giants like Binney & Smith/Crayola and American Crayon/Dixon Ticonderoga, other companies popped up in the industry at various times from the late 19th century to the early 1910s. E. Steiger & Co. is one of the first companies to offer up a line of wax crayons aimed for kindergarten use. Located out of New York, NY, it is unclear when this company started producing crayons but based on a known ad from 1881, they clearly offered wax crayons in boxes of 6, 12, and 18 colors
While discoveries were being made in Europe, the foundation was being laid in the United States for a company that would turn the crayon into its best-known product; one that would reach the households of generations of children throughout the world.
In 1864, Joseph W. Binney founded the Peekskill Chemical Company in Peekskill, N.Y. This company was responsible for products in the black and red color range, such as lampblack, charcoal and a paint containing red iron oxide which was often used to coat the barns dotting America’s rural landscape.
Peekskill Chemical was also instrumental in changing the look of America’s highways. The first automobile tires were actually white because of the zinc oxide in the rubber compound. One rather daring tire manufacturer decided to tint his new tire silver gray to distinguish it from the other tires of the day. While experimenting with different compounds, the Peekskill chemists discovered that darker tires not only looked different but were more durable than the others. In fact, the addition of carbon black was found to increase tread life four or five times.
Binney was beginning to realize the service he and his company could perform through knowledge and correct application of pigments and related chemical compounds. He instructed his field sales force to determine the needs of their customers so that the laboratory specialists could investigate ways to fill these needs. This attitude was maintained as the company changed hands around 1885. Joseph’s son, Edwin Binney, and nephew, C. Harold Smith, then formed the partnership of Binney & Smith. The cousins expanded the company’s product line to include shoe polish and printing ink.
In 1900, the company purchased a stone mill in Easton, PA, near many of the region’s slate quarries. Not long after, they began producing slate pencils. It was the slate pencil that introduced Binney & Smith to the educational market. And by listening and responding to teachers’ requests for better materials, the fledging company eased its way into the children’s art field.
“The chalk we’re using crumbles easily and it’s too dusty!” came the uniform cry. Binney & Smith’s chemists went to work, and An-Du-Septic Dustless Chalk, made by an extrusion process to “weight” dust particles, came into being. “The crayons we’re using are terrible! The ones imported from Europe are of better quality, but they’re far too expensive for our school’s budget,” lamented schoolteachers who worked out of one-room schoolhouses. Coincidentally, the Binney & Smith lab had just developed a new wax crayon to be used to mark crates and barrels. This particular crayon was loaded with carbon black. The researchers were confident that the pigment and wax mixing techniques they had developed could be adapted to a variety of colors.
The chemists were correct, but the manufacture of colored crayons for children involved special considerations. Foremost was the fact that most of the pigments available at the time were toxic. Obviously, such components were not acceptable for the new product since it was possible that the crayons would, at times, be chewed or even digested. Therefore, in some cases, synthetic, non-toxic pigments had to be developed to replace organic colors. Actual production of the brightly colored, non-toxic crayons posed more problems. Small batches of liquid crayons had to be hand mixed after precise measurements. Binney & Smith’s goal was to match the color uniformity and consistency of the imported crayons while keeping costs low.
Special training and a blend of strength and gentleness were required to pull the slim cylinders from their molds. Labels were rolled on by hand, another time-consuming process. But research and painstaking labor paid off. In 1903, a new brand of crayons with superior working qualities was introduced to U.S. consumers.
Edwin’s wife, Alice Stead Binney, took particular interest in the new product. A former schoolteacher, Mrs. Binney was able to recognize the significance of the availability of colored crayons in terms of child development. For the first time, an assortment of colors was offered to eager young hands at a price most people could afford. Eight different colors retailed for about 5 cents in 1903.
The brand name “Crayola” was, in fact, the invention of Mrs. Binney. Crayola represents the joining of the French word “craie,” meaning chalk or stick of color, and “ola,” from oleaginous (oily). The name would soon become synonymous with crayon to the point where today, Binney & Smith takes special care to guard the trademark to prevent it from becoming just another generic term.
In order to make more colors available to more children, Binney & Smith slowly expanded its range of colors and streamlined its production methods. Crayola crayons are now available in a total of 120 colors in a dazzling array of shades including 19 blues, 20 greens, 23 reds, 8 yellows, 16 purples, 14 oranges, 11 browns, 2 grays, 1 silver, 1 white, 2 blacks, 1 gold and 2 coppers. Today, nearly three billion Crayola crayons are produced each year.
Outside of the crayon production area, heated tanks store paraffin wax in a liquid state. This heated wax is pumped directly into a mixing vat in which it is mixed with a predetermined amount of powdered pigment. The Crayola crayons of today are made by essentially the same formula as that of the original crayons made in 1903. Improvements and minor adjustments have, of course, taken place over the past 90 years, but the crayon formula is as guarded today as it was then. The wax is heated and poured from a double spouted bucket onto the molding table. Each mold forms 2,400 crayons. As the wax-pigment blend settles into the cylindrical molds, it is cooled by water. The nature of each color’s pigments also determines how long the crayon will take to cool, anywhere from four to seven minutes. At that point, the crayons are hydraulically ejected from their molds.
The mold operator then empties the crayons from their rack onto a worktable, where the first quality control check is made. Any crayons with broken tips, chipped butt ends or inconsistent color are returned to the mixing vat to be melted and remolded. After being molded, crayons are placed in an automated labeling machine that wraps and glues on the labels. This process is quite a bit faster than the hand labeling method that was used in the early and mid-1900s. From here, the crayons are fed into packing machines that collate the colors into different assortments for retail stores nationwide.
If all the regular size Crayola crayons made in one year were laid end to end on the Equator . . . you’re right, they would melt! But those melted bands of color would circle the Earth six times. Whoever first described Binney & Smith Inc. as “a rainbow encircling the globe” certainly did not mean to be so literal. However, Crayola crayons are found throughout the world, making the artistic explorations of children–and some adult artists–truly colorful experiences.
Artists working in this medium include American artists’ Herb Williams and Christian Faur. The two are only a handful of artists in the world that use crayons as one of their primary mediums.
Nashville artist Herb Williams is unique in that he uses so many crayons that he has an account with Crayola. He creates original sculptures out of individual crayons that may require as many as hundreds of thousands. He will also cast the completed crayon sculptures in a silicone jacket mold with a two-part epoxy resin and then paint the resin sculpture to look like the original, occasionally producing a small edition. The cast sculptures have been placed in public arenas, such as children’s hospitals, corporate lobbies, and museum walls.
“I am one of the only independent buyers in the world who maintains an account with Crayola,” states Williams. Because I am in pursuit of larger ideas, the playful aspect of my medium is integral to the works of art I’m creating. I can subversively insert a concept that may bloom well after the initial recognition of the form as a familiar children’s implement. In order to create my work I need to produce sculpture on a grand scale (which takes thousands and thousands of crayons), so I order each color individually packed (3000 to a case) and cut the sticks down to the length I need. I then bond the paper—not the wax—to a form I have carved or cast, completely enveloping the form,” he added.
The crayon sculptures have garnered much press and acclaim for Williams with his work being featured worldwide. His acclaim has reached as far as China, England, Canada, Belgium, Germany, Australia, Croatia, and Japan. Most recently, his work was featured at an Inaugural art exhibit in Washington, DC. Williams is currently represented by The Rymer Gallery in Nashville, TN, and The Rare Gallery in Chelsea, New York. http://www.herbwilliamsart.com/Home
Christian Faur takes a scientific approach to making a statement with color. With a M.F.A. degree in new media from the University of Danube (Kerns), Transart Institute, Austria, and a B.S. in physics from California State, Northridge, his vision seems to come from a more mathematical perspective. Christian, from Granville, Ohio, starts each piece by scanning a photograph and breaking the image down into colored blocks.
At first glance the pictures look like nothing more than pixelated photographs, but closer inspection reveals the images are actually created using thousands of wax crayons.
Bored with paint and pencils, the inventive artist turned to a childhood favorite of crayons for inspiration after seeing his young daughter using them.
In recent years, Faur has produced a series of works using a “color alphabet” he created, assigning a hue to each letter and subtly spelling things out in items ranging from a suit made for dating and mating to pixelated portraits formed entirely of hand-cast wax crayons.
Sources: Crayola; Wikipedia; The National Ranching Heritage Center, Lubbock, TX; Herb Williams | herbwilliams.com and Christian faur | christianfaur.com
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