Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

One day last winter, a crayon-hued, double-decker bus pulled into the heart of Dallas, Texas. For five days, crayon fans climbed on board to draw, color, and sample new products. The event kicked off the Crayola® ARTrageous Adventure tour, a traveling centennial party for the Crayola crayon, manufactured by Pennsylvania-based Binney & Smith, Inc. After a twenty-five­-city cross-country trek, the bus headed east to the Crayola Factory in Easton, Northampton County, for the crayon’s official Columbus Day weekend bash and the unveiling of a giant crayon made from crayon stubs collected at each stop along the way.

The Crayola crayon, a cultural icon of twentieth-century American childhood, has deep roots in the Easton area, where it debuted in 1903. Although Binney & Smith based its corporate headquarters in New York City until 1976 and is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Hallmark Cards, Inc., the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania has been home to its major manufacturing facilities that today make most of the three billion crayons produced each year. The Crayola Facto­ry’s three hundred and fifty thousand visitors yearly is testimony to Pennsylvania’s importance to the world’s most famous crayon.

The story of Crayola began in 1864, when English immigrant Joseph W. Bin­ney (1836-1898) established a chemical company in upstate New York for manufacturing and distributing black and red pigments. Products of his Peekskill Chem­ical Works included powdered charcoal and lamp black, along with red iron oxide paint that coated many barns throughout the United States. In 1885, Binney set up headquarters in New York City and was joined by his nephew, C. Harold Smith (1860-1931) and later his son, Edwin Binney (1866-1934). When the senior Binney retired a year later, the young cousins took over the company and formed the partnership of Binney & Smith. The new company quickly took off with a revolutionary black pigment, carbon black, which became the main ingredient in printing ink, stove and shoe polish, marking inks, and automobile tires.

In 1900, Edwin Binney purchased a gristmill on Bushkill Creek near Easton and ventured into a new product line, slate pencils, made from grinding talc, cement, and slate from a nearby quarry. Their slate pencils introduced the cousins to the educational market and teachers’ dire need for durable, inexpensive art products. In 1902, the Easton plant intro­duced Au-Du-Septic, the first dustless chalk for blackboards. Meanwhile, compa­ny chemists had developed the Staonal (for “stay-on-all”) carbon black wax cray­on for marking wooden crates and barrels. It would be only a matter of time until they came up with a colored wax crayon.

When Crayola crayons debuted in 1903, the only other crayons available in the United States were either expensive imported artists’ crayons made with toxic organic pigments or cheap domes­tic crayons that easily crumbled in children’s hands. By adding nontoxic synthetic pig­ments to the paraffin mix for making Staonal crayons, the chemists ended up with a safe, child-sized colored crayon sturdy enough for classroom use.

The cousins were deter.mined to match both the color uniformity and durability of the imported crayons, while keeping the price low. The first box of eight Crayola crayons – in red, orange, yellow, blue, green violet, brown, and black – sold for five cents. A box of sixteen – with the addition of light green, cobalt blue, burnt sienna, rose pink, white, gold ochre, english vermillion and olive green – sold for ten cents. Edwin Binney’s wife, Alice Stead Binney (1866-1960), a former school teacher, came up with the name for the new product by combining the French, word craie (meaning chalk or stick of color) with “ola” (derived from oleaginous, or oily). Binney & Smith fiercely guarded its brand name, registering the first legal trademark for Crayola in 1903.

In 1902, the company had been incor­porated as the Binney & Smith Company. The carbon black products became part of its Pigment Division, sold a half-century later to the Columbia Carbon Company. Although sales for Crayon Division prod­ucts were conducted by the New York office, the crayons were always produced at the Bushkill Creek plant. The author of Binney & Smith’s 1956 corporate history, The Story of a Rainbow, recalled his visit to the plant in 1910. “I went to the upper floor of the factory which was full of girls labeling the crayons by a hand-rolling method … Then the labels had to be allowed to dry and on our lower floors the crayons were put in boxes by hand, and then packed by hand in wooden cases.”

Available in boxes of eight, twelve, sixteen, and twenty-four, the crayons proved to be an immediate success in classrooms across America. The federal government, one of the company’s first customers, distributed crayons to its Indian reservation schools. By the 1920s, Binney & Smith was also pro­ducing a popular line of artists’ crayons, including Rubens Crayola Drawing Crayons and Perma Pressed fine art crayons, and expanding its children’s crayon line with products like the minis­cule Tiny Tots Drawing Crayons, discon­tinued in the 1930s.

Until the mid-1970s, the company used two different crayon-making methods. Molded crayons, the process still used today and at the demonstrations at the Crayola Factory, are made by pouring a hot paraffin, pigment, and fillers mixture through crayon-shaped molds. Pressed crayons were made by blending pigments and fillers before adding liquid paraffin, packing this mix into a metal cylin­der, and then pushing the solid cray­on through a dye.

Most histories of Crayola fast forward to the boom in new crayon colors following World War II with the introduction of the Crayola-forty­-eight-crayon box in 1949 and sixty­-four-piece box in 1958. Yet the Easton plant was producing a full color line by 1904, when its crayons captured a gold medal at the Louisiana Pur­chase Exposi­tion in St. Louis, Missouri. In his unpublished chronology of Crayola Cray­on colors from 1900 to 2000, David H. Shayt, Smithsonian Institution curator documents thirty-one colors manufactured by the opening of the 1904 World’s Fair and forty-five colors by 1934. Some of the most famous Crayola colors – burnt sienna, burnt umber, flesh, indian red, and raw umber – debuted within the first year of production.

From the very beginning; Binney & Smith paid particular attention to art instruction wi.th special art products and support for educators. One 1920s cata­logue describes the line of Munsell Perma Pressed crayons, “offering a new field of color-expression to artist-teacher and artist-student … so perfect in color scale that it merits a place in every art class.” In the 1920s, the company also launched its Art Service Bureau and a newsletter, The Drawing Teacher, precursors of its post-World War II Art Teacher Workshop and today’s nationally acclaimed Crayola Dream-Makers program begun in 1984 that fosters art activities throughout the elementary school curriculum and exhibitions of children’s art. With the success of its Crayon Division, Binney & Smith emerged as one of the Easton area’s largest employers, hiring generations of extended family members, many of them staying with the company their entire working lives. “My dad worked as a company bus driver in the 1920s, shuttling workers from their homes to the crayon plant,” recalls Claude A. Mackes, a native of near by Nazareth, who spent his high school summers as a floor boy at the crayon plant and retired as executive vice president for manufacturing in 1982. One of four children, Mackes grew up in one of the company-owned houses that stood across from the original crayon plant until the 1940s. He remembers packing Tiny Tot crayons on his parents’ kitchen table in the late twenties. “My mother was paid by the piece as a crayon packer, and she recruited us kids to help her.” In the early 1940s, she was hired as a full time crayon labeler in the plant, a position she held until her retirement in 1965.

Easton resident Kitty Butler Whittier and her three sisters also packed crayons as kids. Both her grandfather and father worked in the slate pencil facility, and her mother was employed as a packer. Whit­tier, who started out as a packer at the age of sixteen, in 1927, worked for Binney & Smith for sixty-one years. For fifty years she worked in the packing department, first as a packer, then as a “floor lady,” setting up schedules, supervising “the girls,” and filling in during their breaks. Rather than retire, she was hired, in 1976, as a full-time plant tour guide, a job she held for eleven years. Her sisters, Stella, Ella, and Margaret, also worked in the packing department. “When I first started working there, everybody was a neighbor or relative,” she says.

Eastonians knew the crayon giant as a “family-friendly” company that took care of its own. During the Great Depression, the company cut back to a four-day workweek rather than lay off its workers. When her daughter was born in 1934, Whittier returned to her same position after a six­-month leave. In 1938, the company start­ed a group health insurance program for its two hundred employees, one of the first firms in the area to do so. In the early 1940s, the company switched its second eight-hour shift starting time from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., so that married women would have time to prepare din­ner before leaving the house for work. Claude Mackes’s mother worked the sec­ond shift until her children were grown.

Following World War II, Crayola crayons were in high demand both from schools with overflowing enrollments and parents of the baby boomers who would grow up waxing nostalgic over the colors of their childhood. The forty-eight­-crayon box of 1949 introduced more than twenty new colors, including boomer favorites maize, lemon yellow, bittersweet, periwinkle, violet blue, thistle, and salmon.

When the Crayola sixty-four-piece box with its revolutionary built-in cray­on sharpener debuted in 1958, the crayons were on their way to becoming the most popular drawing product in America. The box of sixty-four added sixteen new colors to the palette, includ­ing raw sienna, aquamarine, cadet blue, and blue gray. The cousins, however, did not live long enough to watch their crayons’ meteoric rise in popularity. C. Harold Smith died in 1931, and Edwin Binney three years later. With no hint of the crayon’s future fame, Binney’s New York Times obituary headline identified him as a carbon executive.

The year 1958 brought another “first” to the crayon giant when it changed prussian blue to midnight blue after teachers suggested that students “no longer related to Prussian hi story.” It was the first of three highly publicized color change in the company’s one-hundred­-year-old history. Responding to the Civil Rights movement, Binney & Smith renamed the color flesh peach in 1962. In 1999, indian red became chestnut to “dispel the myth that the color was intended to represent the skin color of Native Americans,” instead of a reddish-brown pigment found near India. Nearly one hundred thousand individuals sub­mitted name for the new color, including more than one hundred and fifty who suggested chestnut. Other candidate for the new name included mars red, clay red, red clay, crab claw red, ginger spice, old penny, and baseball mitt.

By the 1970s, the company was relying on consumer input, color trends, and market research, as well as the standard artist palette, to expand it color lineup. In the early seventies, Binney & Smith added eight fluorescent shades to the crayon palette: atomic orange, blizzard blue, hot magen­ta, laser lemon, outra­geous orange, screamin’ green, shocking pink, and wild watermelon. After surveying children about their color preferences, in 1990, Binney & Smith retired eight original crayons from its sixty-four-crayon box. Considered old-fashioned for its younger crayon fans, the company replaced maize, raw umber, lemon yellow, blue gray, violet blue, green blue, orange red, and orange yellow with wild strawberry, vivid tangerine, real blue, royal purple, jungle green, cerulean, fuchsia, and dande­lion. The eight retirees were officially inducted into Binney & Smith’s new Crayola Hall of Fame in the lobby of its Forks Township headquarters.

Not everyone was celebrating. Disgruntled adult crayon fans protested directly to the company with telephone calls and letters. They orga­nized the Committee to Re-establish All Your Old Norms (CRAYON), the Raw Umber and Maize Preservation Society (RUMPS), and the National Committee to Save Lemon Yellow (NCSLY). Even more than a year after the crayons’ official retirement party, Binney & Smith was receiving three hundred complaints each month. In a bold publicity move, the company brought back “The Crayola Eight” in a fourteen-month, limited edi­tion box in October 1991.

The following year the company introduced its first multi-cultural “global pack” crayons, reflecting the skin tones of its worldwide consumers. Thirty years after flesh was renamed peach the crayon was just one in the pack. In a radical departure from using only its color experts to name new hues, Binney & Smith invited crayon fans to come up with sixteen new colors for the new Big Box of ninety-six for the crayon’s ninetieth birthday in 1993. Winning shades with names like asparagus, denim, macaroni and cheese, granny smith apple, tropical rain forest, timber wolf, and tickle me pink now lined up with sepia, sky blue, red, and burnt sienna.

Three years later, on July 17, 1996, more than forty-five thousand well wishers packed the streets of down­town Easton for the grand opening of Two Rivers Landing, home of the National Canal Museum and Crayola Factory. In 1993, the Easton Develop­ment Corporation had commissioned a study in an effort to revitalize the city’s downtown area that had suffered an eco­nomic decline over a period of two decades. A resulting plan proposed an overall vision of Easton as a family desti­nation. While the plan relied on several components, none was more important than a family discovery center that would serve as Binney & Smith’s corpo­rate showcase and factory tour alterna­tive, together with the National Canal Museum and a visitor center for the City of Easton and the National Heritage Cor­ridor.

Opening Day festivities featured “ColorJam,” a parade of two thousand enthusiasts with color-themed names and outfits to match. Sporting a bright gold tie, Easton’s Mayor Thomas F. Goldsmith credited the public-private partnership for the redevelopment pro­ject. The partnership included the Easton Economic Development Corporation, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Hugh Moore Park Commission, the Delaware and Lehigh Canal National Heritage Corridor, and Binney & Smith.

While the Crayola Factory was still in the planning stages, the company began looking for an alternative to its popular tours, begun in the 1970s, says Mary Ellyn Voden, executive director of the Crayola Factory and director of global public affairs. A two-year waiting list and restriction barring children under age six offset the tours’ feasibility. The crayon-making demonstrations at the new facility were an important part of the plans. “The Crayola Factory allowed us to create a sense of a real factory and present history in a way that’s understandable to kids,” she says, “while helping the community at the same time.” The neighboring Crayola Store reminds visitors that Crayola products are made right in the area. “Now, friends and fam­ily from all over the country can come away with a reminder of the Lehigh Val­ley,” Voden remarks.

By February 1998, when Binney & Smith marked the fortieth anniversary of the Crayola box of sixty-four, the crayon had become a fixture in American households. Acknowledging the crayon’s historic importance, Binney & Smith donated a rare 1958 Crayola box of sixty-four to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History during an anniversary ceremony held at New York’s Rockefeller Plaza. The Crayola crayon collection at the Smithsonian, whose archives house Binney & Smith’s company records, includes more than three hundred original crayon boxes spanning most of the crayon’s one-hundred-year history. In 1997, Binney & Smith presented several vintage boxes of Crayola crayons to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

In 1998, Easton had another reason to celebrate its homegrown, hometown crayon when the United States Postal Service (USPS) unveiled a Crayola crayon commemorative postage stamp as part of its “Celebrate the Century” series of significant people and events in the twentieth-century. Stamp collectors and Crayola crayon fans stood in line outside the USPS’s Palmer Township branch to buy first-day cancellations of the thirty-two-cent stamp depicting the original 1903 box of eight. The stamp, one of fifteen commemorating the years 1900 to 1909, was officially unveiled at the Crayola Factory and enshrined in its Crayola Hall of Fame.

As the Crayola crayon observes its centennial, the crayon has come a long way since its “school” crayon ori­gins. Today it comes twistable, erasable, washable, and even recyclable with a toy crayon maker that melts down old crayons to make new ones. It is offered in one hundred and twenty colors, packaged in twelve languages, and sold in more than eighty countries. Its digital image appears on the web, where worldwide visitors can find creative ideas, lesson plans, color facts, and quizzes, Crayola history, greeting cards, and updates on centennial offerings and events.

In early 2003, Binney & Smith introduced a special edition one­-hundred-crayon birthday box with a new logo and bright gold wrapping. That familiar waxy fragrance still wafts out of a recently opened package, while neon carrot, hot magenta, and atomic tangerine share the pack with blue violet, pine green, and yel­low orange. Because of Binney & Smith, and generations of Easton residents who worked for the manufacturer, the crayon has assumed its place in history as a classroom staple, a household word, and an American cultural icon. The statistics are awesome. On average, children between the ages of two and seven will spend nearly thirty minutes coloring each day. The typical child In the United States will wear down seven hundred and thirty crayons by his or her tenth birthday. The Crayola brand name is recognized by ninety-nine percent of all Americans. And the scent of Cray­ola crayons is among the twenty most recognizable to American adults.


For Further Reading

Rushlow, Bonnie B. A Century of Cray­ola Collectibles: A Price Guide. Grantsville, Md.: Hobby House Press, 2002.

Wood, Samuel G. Crayons From Start to Finish. Woodbridge, Conn.: Blackbirch Press, Inc., 1999.


Liz Armstrong Hall, a native of Allen­town, Lehigh County, is a historian, writer, and colored pencil artist. She has written two nonfiction books, The Great American Medicine Show (1991), with David Armstrong, and The Breakfast Book (1979). Her business profiles and traveler’s guides have appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, St. Louis Magazine, WHERE San Francisco, and National Geographic World. The author worked for four years as a writer for the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis, where she produced a “Where We Live” neighborhood guide series and audience guides for museum programs. She is currently writing business profiles for Washington, D.C.: An Illustrated His­tory, to be published this year. The writer lives in Manassas, Virginia.