The adult coloring book craze may not involve the crayons we used as kids, but there’s a lot to think about the subject (crayons, that is).

Crayons drew themselves into our whole grade-school history, and our parents’ and our grandchildren’s.

If I didn’t hate bad puns, I’d say they have a colorful history (but as I said …)

There were wax crayons before Binney & Smith (the Crayola people) put theirs on the market in 1903. Artists used them, but they were too expensive for parents. Some of the colors had toxic ingredients, too.

Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith were cousins who ran the company. Just after the turn of the 20th century, they put out their first school crayons. For a nickel, you’d get red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, and black in the box.

The box of eight was good enough for more than 40 years, but things got interesting in 1949.

Crowding into a bigger box were 40 new colors, such as bittersweet (an orangey red), thistle (a light violet) and Prussian blue (a very dark shade). This must have opened up a ton of creativity for grubby little hands.

The box grew to 64 in 1958 (think aquamarine and copper) and 72 in 1972 (a big fluorescent infusion). As a first-grader in ’58, I envied those classmates who had the “big” crayon boxes, even though I didn’t like coloring all that much. It seemed to be a big deal that the bigger boxes had a built-in sharpener. What I couldn’t understand was why there was a blue green and a separate green blue crayon in the box.

By the time hot magenta and chartreuse were introduced in that infusion of fluorescents, Binney & Smith was responding to a stirring in crayon color circles. Prussian blue became midnight blue, because, I contend, no one knew where Prussia was. Then, there was the “flesh” crayon. Someone noticed that it didn’t exactly match the flesh of all the kids using it. The Crayola people’s faces may have been red, but they turned to “peach” for that crayola label. “Indian red” later gave way to chestnut.

How did the word “crayola” come about, you must be wondering? The boss’ wife Alice Binney, who was a former teacher, reasoned that “craie” means chalk in French and “ola” was a shortened form of the French word, “oléagineux,” which means oily. If that needs explanation, one of the company’s first big successes was a chalk that didn’t spew dust all over the place.

By 1998, the box had grown to its apparent natural limit, 120 colors. The current roster has 23 reds but only one white, silver and gold. And oh, the names: inch worm (really?), fuzzy wuzzy brown, neon carrot (coincidentally, the name of a band booked for Decatur Celebration) and my personal favorite, mauvelous. But hey, what’s with that yellow green and green yellow?

If you think about crayons long enough, you’ll have to ask yourself such questions as “What’s the most popular color of all time?” In 2001, Binney & Smith asked around and found it was good, old blue; runners-up were various shades of blue. That’s somehow unsatisfying, like learning vanilla is the favorite ice cream flavor.


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