The Colorful Story of Crayola Crayons

The concept was simple. Mix a little oil with some charcoal and pigment, and viola, you have a unique coloring instrument.

One hates to spoil the ending of a good story, but Crayola didn’t invent this idea. Also, they probably weren’t the first to figure out wax worked better than oil. They were, however, despite a few hiccups, the ones who perfected marketing crayons.

To get to the whole story on Crayola’s famous crayon, you would think you’d have to go through Crayola. Not true. The pathway is through a man named Ed Welter, a self-ascribed aficionado of colored wax.

In 2000, Welter embarked on a journey to learn about the history of the crayon, only to discover that the parent company had nothing.

One foot after the other, Welter spent ten months collecting crayons and knockoffs from wherever he could find them, dating back to 1903 when the company first produced them.

The First Colors

If you ask Crayola, they’ll tell you that there were eight colors in the first box of crayons: black, blue, brown, orange, red, violet and yellow.

Welter argues that this is not true.

“Evidence shows they had a full line of products from the very beginning.”

Because their product was new, Crayola came out with an instruction book in 1904. That book featured a picture capturing 13 original products.

According to Welter, this wasn’t even the full line from 1903. They crazy thing about this is that the Crayola we know today is much like the company they were in 1903, minus the corporate associations and crazy colors.

Oh yeah, and they’re more consistently branded now. The fonts and artwork for early products were all over the place, a marketing nightmare.

Welter goes to argue that there may have been no such thing as the original eight color box of crayons, that even their first edition of products varied.

“First, Crayola didn’t just have a box of 8 colors, sell some and later jump to 16 colors as their web site might cause you to deduce.  Evidence shows they had a full line of products from the very beginning.”

So what were the first colors? We know this much, it wasn’t the eight listed above.

It was somewhere north of 30.

Changes Over The Years

What changed over the years was the packaging, the names of the colors, some of the pigment suppliers.

After WWII, many of the suppliers Crayola had used were no longer able to see to them. The war put pressure on many markets, strained relationships and forced companies to find other solutions.

Crayons were no exception.

Color changes were usually subtle, but according to Welter, the quality was about the same.

“I actually colored on paper with all of them,” lobbied Welter to the Huffington Post. “Since the ‘60s, they’ve kept pretty true to their basic colors.”

It’s interesting to learn from Welter’s site that some of the first boxes didn’t label the actual crayons with color names. The names were on the box, with numbers, which corresponded with numbers on the crayon wrappers.

It sounds confusing for an adult, but imagine being a kid. Good thing they dropped that idea.

Specialty Crayons

Between 1962 and 1990, the big box of crayons, the 64 color set, stayed pretty much the same. There were tweaks to the packaging over the years, some minor color changes, but the core colors stayed the same.

Outside of that box, there were some interesting moves. In 1972, Crayola introduced fluorescent colors for the first time ever.

Welter points out on his site:

“With the introduction of the Crayola Fluorescent assortment box containing eight new colors, they set upon a focus that hasn’t stopped to this day; that of the specialty crayon.”

Other specialty crayons would include the metallics in 1987, the So-big crayons in 1983, the Glitter crayons in 1993, and then scented and glow-in-the-dark versions in 1994.

That’s just a few of the specialty options over the years.

There were corporate associations along the way too, like Winnie the Pooh and other cartoon-themed crayons, like the Hallmark Entertainment videos which included a four-pack of crayons.

Discontinued Colors

A few colors came under scrutiny over the years or were simply discontinued for another reason.

The flesh color controversy happened when Crayola had to change their beige-colored crayon to peach. They also decided to change the Indian Red color in 1999.

Other colors they lost because of popularity or changes with distributors. Some colors went away because they were the exact same as a color by a different name.

Once, in 1949, they released a box of crayons that had 48-colors, many of which were repeats with different names.

Today’s Crayola crayons are still as diverse as the lineup from 1903, but better branded.

They’ve expanded way beyond colored wax, even gained a reputation amongst serious artists who create with or about Crayola crayons. It’s interesting that their story is so muddied, though, like they had something to hide…

It’s as if they just wanted to color the perfect picture all along.

Sources: Crayon Collecting, Huffington Post