Crayons, and the coloring books that often go with them, have been part of childhood for generations. We all learned to color inside the lines (or outside them if our creativity leaned that way), using crayons long before we figured out pencils.
We also used them up—favorite colors first—and parents replaced them at need, and still do, so much that if every Crayola crayon made last year were laid end to end at the equator, the many-hued rainbow would encircle the Earth six times.
That circle should start at Easton, Pa. (pop. 26,263). This town, where the Delaware and Lehigh rivers converge, was already a commercial center when cousins Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith purchased a mill there in 1900 and began making slate pencils for schools. By 1903, the first 5-cent box of Binney & Smith crayons was available in eight colors, and they’ve been made there ever since.
The Crayola name was contributed by Binney’s wife, Alice, who derived it from the French craie, meaning chalk, and ola, meaning oleaginous, or oily. Since then, for generations worldwide, the brand has been synonymous with crayons.
Though the company makes 120 different shades, some colors have been retired, replaced by fancier ones—such as tickle me pink and mauvelous—which were not in vogue back when local farm wives were paid to wrap the crayons in paper at home. To prevent mistakes, such as green wrappers on yellow crayons, the farms were color-coded; only red crayons and wrappers
went to the red farm, blue to the blue farm, and the names often stuck. (Imagine growing up on the tickle me pink farm.)
Like many of her neighbors, third-generation Binney & Smith employee Kitty Whittier packed crayon boxes in her family home near the original factory on Bushkill Drive, where she began working in 1927.
“After 50 years, I was ready to retire, and they called me in and said, ‘Kitty, would you like to be a tour guide?’ I didn’t even stop to think about it because I loved my job so much,” she says. “I spent 11 more years there.”
Whittier’s grandfather, parents, cousin, and three sisters worked there, too. “You knew everybody,” she says.
Crayons are as important to Easton as Easton is to the Lehigh Valley. Not only has the factory been a major employer, it’s drawn thousands of visitors to the area. When it became clear five years ago that the main Crayola factory couldn’t handle the volume of folks wanting to see crayons made, Binney & Smith joined a project to transform several old downtown stores into the 88,000-square-foot Crayola Factory and Canal Museum. (At one time, three canals and five major railroads linked Easton and the anthracite coal region to Philadelphia and New York.) Now a giant crayon box seems to spill its contents over the entrance, and the factory has become a linchpin of downtown revitalization. The museum features crayon-making demonstrations, canal history, and hands-on activities. Visitors get to keep a pack of crayons made on site.
“Things are always happening at the Crayola Factory,” says Marketing Director Rick Nann, adding that an exhibit at the new family discovery center where children create three-dimensional art out of melted crayon wax is just one way the company is gearing up for its centennial in 2003. “We’ve had over 2 million visitors in five years, and we’re looking forward to a lot more,” Nann says.
Besides being an attraction for visitors, Binney & Smith is also a good neighbor and an active member of the Lehigh Valley community. In Easton and nearby towns, the company has supported education and the arts with contributions of both money and materials and, at the factory in Easton, has created workshops for groups such as teachers, homeschooled children, elementary school art classes, and scouting groups.
With its 100th birthday on the horizon, Crayola can look back at a busy and colorful history, as it looks forward to a bright and busy celebration.