Welcome to America Comes Alive!, a site I created to share little-known stories of America's past. These stories are about Americans - people just like you - who have made a difference and changed the course of history. Look around the site and find what inspires you. Kate Kelly
The Inventors of Crayons: Binney & Smith

The Inventors of Crayons: Binney & Smith

Binney & Smith was an outgrowth of a company begun in Peekskill, CrayolaNew York, in 1864 by Joseph W. Binney, the father of the man who would become part of Binney & Smith. The first product sold by Binney’s company, Peekskill Chemical Works, was known as lampblack. It was ground and packaged charcoal that could be used as a coloring pigment in inks and paints. 

The chemical company was so successful that in 1880 Joseph decided to open a sales office in New York City. At that time, he was joined by his nephew, C. Harold Smith (1860-1931) who had recently emigrated from New Zealand, and one of his sons Edwin (1866-1934).

By this time, the company was also selling a rust-colored paint that was made from iron oxide. It was frequently used as a protective paint on barns, and became known as “barn red.”

In 1885 Joseph retired, and the two younger men formed their own partnership, Binney & Smith, to carry the company forward. They were a perfect team. Smith was a very comfortable and successful salesman, and Binney enjoyed working with the chemists and experimenting with new products.

New Pigment from Natural Gas

crayonsIn the 1880s, some businesses began marketing a new pigment known as “carbon black,” which was a byproduct of the drilling for natural gas that was being done in western Pennsylvania. Edwin Binney was very taken with the possibilities, and in 1892 he received a patent for an apparatus that permitted the mass manufacture of carbon black. Soon Binney & Smith became one of the major producers of the pigment.  (In 2011, Edwin Binney was honored posthumously by the National Inventors Hall of Fame in recognition for his invention.)

As a result of this business expansion, part of the company relocated to western Pennsylvania, near Easton, and this location opened new business opportunities.  There was a slate quarry near Easton, and Binney had his inventors working on ways to use the waste from the slate removal process. They ended up creating an excellent, Inexpensive slate pencil.

At the turn of the 20th century, paper was expensive so children used slates (like small two-sided blackboards) in school. The students used slate pencils to write on these tablets, and the softer the pencil the better. (The marks from a slate pencil are very much like markings of chalk and can be easily using a cotton cloth–or even a sleeve.)

Binney & Smith: Selling to Schools

As Binney & Smith began to sell to the school market, Smith began crayonslistening for what else the teachers needed. Two requests came up again and again: chalk that didn’t produce a dusty mess, and inexpensive wax crayons children could use for artwork.

Binney’s staff in Pennsylvania continued experimenting with slate waste and began adding cement and talc (which came from a mine near Easton). Eventually they developed what Binney named  An-Du-Septic chalk, a dustless chalk. The Binney & Smith chalk won a gold medal at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and teachers were delighted to do away with the chalk that left a residue on their fingers and clothes, not to mention dust in the air in the classroom.

Pigment Division and Crayola Division

In the meantime, Binney & Smith was growing into a huge company. As the school market began to heat up, they opted to create two divisions: the Crayola division focusing on school products, and the Pigment division that created colors for industrial use.

The Pigment division exploded first. In 1911, Binney & Smith got an order from B.F. Goodrich for an annual supply of one million pounds of carbon black. Tire companies saw that black tires looked better, but more important, by adding the black pigment to their tires, it greatly extended the life and durability of the tire.

Crayola Division Grows

Crayola roundWax crayons existed before Binney & Smith, but most were for artists and were expensive. Some had toxic elements added to achieve certain colors. For the school market, Binney & Smith knew the product had to be safe for children to work with.

They had created their own marking crayon, because they had needed a simple way to label barrels and boxes in their manufacturing plant. The “Staonal (stay-on-all)” marking crayon was a good product but had certain elements that needed to be removed for it be child-friendly.  Binney guided his team to work on substitutions for the toxic pigments.

By 1903 they were satisfied, and Binney & Smith produced their first box of eight colorful crayons for children. The box cost a nickel and the crayons contained were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, and black.  Each crayon was wrapped in paper and labeled as to color. (During the Depression, Binney & Smith hired farm families to hand-letter the papers and wrap the crayons. This provided work in an economic downturn, and over time, certain farms became known for their color specialty.)

Binney & Smith and the Crayola Name

Alice Binney, who was a former teacher, is credited with coming up crayonswith the Crayola name under which the crayons were released. (“Craie” means chalk in French and “ola” was a shortened form of the French word, “oléagineux,” which means oily.)

The Crayola division continued to add products. By 1920 they had developed a more elegant crayon, Crayola Rubens, for the art student. Over time, they added colored pencils and markers, but the big seller has always been crayons.

In 1949, the box was expanded to hold 48 colors placed in a box with “stadium seating,” and in 1958 the classic 64-color box was introduced with a built-in sharpener.  In 1993, ninety-six colors were packaged into what they called the Big Box.

While companies are always cautious about changing a successful product, Crayola has been around for so many years that changes are inevitable. The company has added colors and has also had to respond to public pressure on certain names.  In 1962, they renamed the “flesh” crayon “peach” in recognition that there are many colors of flesh. The public also objected to “Indian red” though the company explained it was a reference a red dye in India. No matter, the public wanted a new name. Indian red was changed to chestnut (1999). Teachers also pointed out that “Prussian blue” was meaningless to children. Prussia had ceased to exist in 1947, so they renamed the blue midnight blue.

Involving the Public

crayonsThe Crayola Company has long recognized the importance of public opinion, and that has surely been part of their success. In 1993, they were bringing out some new colors so they ran a “Name the New Colors Contest” that had almost 2 million entries.  The oldest winner was an 89-year-old woman who submitted “purple mountain’s majesty” for a new shade of purple, and the youngest was 5, who submitted “razzmatazz” for the raspberry red crayon. To read all the new color names and their winners, click here.

Eight years later, the company wanted to know the most popular color. In 2001, they conducted the Crayola Color Census and the undisputed winner was the color blue; runners-up were various shades of blue.

The name Crayola is recognized by 99 percent of American households, and while crayons are still their primary product, they now sell many forms of craft products.  They also own manufacturing rights for Magic Markers and purchased Silly Putty in 1977.

In 1961 the company became publicly held, and  in 1984 Binney & Smith became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hallmark. In 2007, they changed their name to Crayola, LLC. As a well-known consumer company, Crayola has capitalized on their popularity. There are two museums, the Crayola Experience, dedicated to children and creativity. One is in downtown Easton, near the factory, the other is in Orlando, Florida.

How Are Crayons Made?

Of course, one question people always want to know is “how are crayons made?” Surprisingly, the method used today is similar to what was used long ago, but now it is automated.  The factory can produce 8500 crayons a minute.

There are some good YouTube videos put out by the company that tell the story of crayon production. The YouTube video I would recommend is not the most recent but it’s short and succinct.

Binney & Smith: The People

As the founders became wealthy, both made good use of their time rainbow_crayons_by_atom001-d3ijb6dand their money. Edwin Binney, who with his family had gravitated north of Peekskill to make his home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, was a contributing member of that community as well as one in St. Lucie County, Florida (eastern coast of Florida, north of Boca Raton), where he spent winters.

In both communities, he was well-respected. In Greenwich, there is a Binney Lane that runs right down to the water, and in St. Lucie County, he is credited with having had the vision to turn Fort Pierce into a port, now called Port Lucie.

Harold Smith stayed in the New York City area, and he was active in many civic organizations including the Union League Club of New York, the Transportation Club, the Upton Club, and the Hudson River Country Club.

For another interesting story about a product on used when coloring, see Elmer’s Glue: The Surprising Story. 

 



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