Crayons: Color Me Collectible
Crayons have been around for quite some time. The professional artistic community used Crayola crayons under the “Rubens” label with their “Painting with Crayola” tagline circa 1904. This set sold for $278 in 2013.
Flamingo Pink, Fire Fly Yellow, Pink Pearl, Ruby Red, and Rust. Turns out that vibrant colors are collectible – especially if the colors are crayons.
How do you go from manufacturing lampblack, a pigment made from the soot of oil lamps, to becoming the leader of the colors of childhood? If you’re Binney & Smith, a Peekskill, NY, chemical factory, it was a natural transition from also creating the black pigment used in tires to formulating safe, non-toxic Crayola crayons in 1903.
Remarkably, crayons have been around for quite some time. They are basically a mixture of wax and pigment, charcoal and oil and have been an artist’s tool, in one formulation or another, since Pliny the Elder described the mixture in his book Natural History from the 1st century AD. It’s even documented that Leonardo da Vinci worked with early versions of crayon by 1495. The word crayon itself dates to 1644 from the French word for chalk, craie, and the Latin word for earth, creta, according to Wikipedia, an offshoot of the charcoal and oil known as pastels.
Even though the pigment, charcoal, and oil combination professionals used was toxic, crayons were becoming quite popular, especially with their ease of use by the younger set. There were, however, instances of poisonings from the use of the crayons themselves. With the popularity of the kindergarten movement in the late 19th century, children needed a safer alternative.
Curiously, it was a leftover of oil production that provided that safe alternative – paraffin wax. Discovered in Germany in 1830 by chemist Karl van Reichenbach, paraffin wax was used mostly for candles and industrial use. But its non-toxic properties were found to be an easy and more cost effective replacement for the manufacture of safer crayons by the late 19th century (ceresin is a similar waxy byproduct used for a short time as well) and adopted by schools. And so, refrigerator art was born.
Companies in Europe and the United States took advantage of the new kindergarten market by producing easily handled round crayons that fit the hands of its younger customers. The Franklin Manufacturing Company of Rochester, NY, for example, is credited with marketing the first non-toxic crayons by 1876 and is also the first company to introduce the 8-color and 16-color boxes that are predominant today.
By 1903, there were about a dozen different companies producing non-toxic crayons. A complete set of early American Crayon “Old Faithful” box of 12 in the original cardboard box sold in 2007 for $13.83.
Other companies followed such as Dixon, Eagle Pencil, American Crayon and Munsell Color Company. By 1903, there were about a dozen different companies producing non-toxic crayons, according to crayoncollecting.com, each producing its own variations of colors with their own unique tin, cardboard or wooden boxes (most selling today for $10 to $30).
A complete set of early American Crayon “Old Faithful” box of 12 in the original cardboard box, for example, sold in 2007 for near $14, while an original Munsell Color Company No. 1 Box of 7 colors sold for $130. A Munsell Color box of 22 original crayons under the Binney & Smith name (they bought the company in 1926 and kept the name until 1944) sold for $154 in 2016, while an early set of Eagle Crayons from 1860 sold for $57.50.
And then came Binney & Smith Co. in 1902. It was their intention to formulate the most reliable, cost effective children’s crayon on the market. At first Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith created “Stayonal,” a marking crayon. Alice Binney, Edwin Binney’s wife, combined the French word “craie” for chalk with the first part of “oleaginous,” the oily paraffin, and came up with Crayola.
By 1903, the new Crayola line of crayons featured 19 different boxes with 30 different colors, both for casual kindergarten artists and the more professional artistic community under the “Rubens” label with their “Painting with Crayola” tagline. In 1904, at the St. Louis World’s Fair, Crayola won a medal for their “dustless chalk,” and the honor was featured on their boxes of crayons for the next 50 years.
Original Crayola No. 47 school crayons still under Binney & Smith Co. name, c. 1905, sold for $81 in January 2013.
An early school set of No. 47 Crayola crayons in the original 22 crayon cardboard box, circa 1905, sold for $81 in 2013. A Crayola Gold Medal Elf school crayon set, circa 1950s, featured Carmine Red, which was made from the cochineal beetle insect at the time, sold recently for $50.
At one time, there were over 300 companies in the United States manufacturing non-toxic crayons, mostly for schools, along with dozens of other European companies. So, collecting vintage crayons is a rather daunting task. Today, there are but a few companies manufacturing crayons with Crayola, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hallmark cards since 1984, the leader with 80% of the market.
By the way, crayons aren’t just for the kindergarten set. Professional artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Picasso have used crayon as a medium in their contemporary artwork. Picasso, for example, has a cut signature in crayon that sold for $150 in 2007 and a separate signed colorful crayon drawing that sold at auction for $2,250.
To fully appreciate the diverse world of crayon collecting, visit crayoncollecting com and read “Collecting a Rainbow: A Glimpse Into the World of Crayon Collecting and Crayon History” by Ed Welter as he recounts the history of crayons and discusses his 3,000 crayon boxes and 60,000 individual crayons collection.
Crayons may seem like child’s play, but joy and happiness come from the appreciation of art whether from a child or an artist, no matter if it’s just one color at a time.
Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.
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