March 21, 2019
(++++) AN EVERYDAY WONDER
The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons. By Natascha Biebow. Illustrated by Steven Salerno. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
There are many things we take for granted in life, whether we are adults or children, never pausing to wonder where they came from and how they came to be. Crayons, a ubiquitous part of childhood going back generations, are one example. They seem always to have been around, and not to have changed very much – except for the addition of some new colors, larger boxes, and of course higher prices – since parents’ childhoods and their parents’ childhoods and…well, how far back do they actually go?
This is a too-infrequently-asked question, because it turns out, as Natascha Biebow explains in The Crayon Man, that the super-familiar Crayola crayons (and why, exactly, are they called that?) date to an age almost unimaginably remote from the present day, even though it is historically not all that long ago: the year 1903. This was a time when paper could not be used in schools: it was too expensive, so kids wrote with dusty, crumbly chalk on small slates. It was a time when crayons, although they existed, were impractical: big, clumsy, and hard to use. It was a time when only high-quality artists’ crayons could be employed in anything approaching the manner we take for granted now – but they cost a great deal and did not last, tending to crumble and break easily.
This is hard to imagine, but Biebow walks children (and parents!) through the realities of the late 19th and early 20th century surely and carefully, and the fine period-style illustrations by Steven Salerno help keep the story lively and, in the main, accurate. The book is the story of Edwin Binney (1866-1934), half of the Binney & Smith team whose eponymous company (which used that name from 1885 until 2007, thereafter becoming known as Crayola) started out creating industrial pigments that were so impressive for quality and price that they won a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Binney was something of what we would now call a serial entrepreneur, inventing a better pencil, better chalk and other items before turning his attention to crayons, largely at the behest of his wife, a former schoolteacher.
Binney’s great idea – well, one of them – involved using wax in crayons. He had employed it in other products and thought, correctly as it turned out, that wax might solve the problem of easy breaking that afflicted crayons made in Europe from charcoal and oil. The Crayon Man does not make it seem that the invention of Crayola crayons was quick or easy: there are many scenes of ways in which Binney and his coworkers “kept on trying” and “kept on experimenting.” There is a certain among of revisionist history here, in the pictures if not the text: Salerno shows not only women but also African-American women working as equals with men, a historical inaccuracy justified by today’s determination to rewrite history to make it more inclusive (and also by the desire to have The Crayon Man reach out to a wide audience of 21st-century readers). There are multiple pictures showing workers, including Binney, covered in all sorts of colors, and some of these illustrations are highlights of the book, making it exceptionally, well, colorful – even if the extent of spillage onto workers’ clothing seems somewhat overdone.
The creation of Crayola crayons was, in effect, a major science project, with Binney as the lead creator – his cousin, C. Harold Smith, meanwhile kept Binney & Smith going with its more-mundane products: Smith was an outgoing and by all accounts highly effective salesman. It was in June 1903 that Binney got the recipe for a new kind of colored crayon right – and, writes Biebow, his wife, Alice, promptly named the product: “craie,” French for a stick of chalk, plus “ola” as in oleagninous, which is to say oily rather than dry and crumbly. Put the words together with a little bit of creative, Americanized spelling, and there you have it: Crayola crayons. The crayons, originally sold in boxes of eight colors for a nickel, were an immediate hit, assisted by the fact that by the time they were invented, new methods of creating paper had also been found – making paper cheap enough for children to use for coloring. Crayola crayons would not have worked on the old slates for which chalk was required, and would not have been quickly adopted if they had required they use of highly expensive paper.
Shortly after Crayola crayons came into being, Binney & Smith won another important gold medal, at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. It was not for the crayons but for the company’s dustless chalk – but the fact that the company was a gold-medal winner quickly appeared on Crayola crayon boxes, lending the new child-focused invention an extra bit of cachet. This is an altogether delightful story, neatly told and filled with fascinating tidbits of information – and after the main narrative ends, there is wonderful two-page photographic presentation showing how Crayola crayons are now made. It is as amazing in terms of the use of modern technology as the main story is in terms of the creativity and business acumen of Edwin Binney. Binney and his inventiveness came along at the right time, when industrial processes made colored wax crayons possible at reasonable prices and when paper could be produced cheaply enough to make the crayons readily usable. The Crayon Man is a wonderful blend of biography and scientific/commercial history, and a fine testament to the spirit of creativity that seems to be a longstanding trait of Americans and their businesses.