The Daily Heller: A Saga of the American Crayon

Posted inThe Daily Heller

I’d bet that most designers take crayons for granted, snubbing them as a child’s drawing toy. Not John Kropf, author of Color Capital of the World: Growing Up With the Legacy of a Crayon Company, and an attorney with over 23 years in the federal government and 10 in the private sector.

Kropf is not an art maven. He explains that he moved from the Midwest to Washington, DC, to work for the State Department on international law. While there, he turned his focus to data protection law. His interest now extends to Midwest history.

So, how did he develop a passion for crayons? I asked him to explain how he came to write a full history of the United States’ largest crayon company and its impact on all of us.

Tell me how you came to be a crayon expert.
I’m not sure I’d consider myself a crayon expert, but more of an amateur historian focused on one company, the American Crayon Company in [Sandusky, Ohio], and a collector of its different brands of crayons and artifacts. My interest in crayons could almost be described as tribal—I was drawn to them through stories of the family crayon company and hometown pride in the factory that made them. 

I’d like to acknowledge a true expert who I met online, Ed Welter. He was a pioneer at cataloging and researching histories of crayon companies and their products. Ed almost single-handedly filled a void with his writings and extensive collecting of crayon. He eventually sold everything—several thousand items—to Crayola Crayon and to various collectors.

How did the crayon become such a ubiquitous drawing/writing tool?
Two elements combined in the early 1900s. The American Crayon Company and its rival, Binney & Smith, working independently, figured out a method to combine paraffin wax with safe pigments to create a usable crayon. The inexpensive and practical crayons came along at a time when there was a new emphasis on art and creativity starting in American schools. The crayon came along at the right time and place. 

The competition between the two was fierce—much like the mid-1980s with computer companies vying to have their brand adopted by schools. American Crayon split its efforts between informational art campaigns in the schools and conventional ads in national publications like The Saturday Evening Post, targeting schools and art industries. One of their signature products, Crayograph, offered durable, pressed wax-free crayons at 10 cents a box. Twice the price of a typical wax crayon, the Crayograph’s selling point was that it lasted much longer than a wax crayon and the colors were more vibrant. Crayograph developed a loyal following among art students.

Binney & Smith successfully launched Crayola through a coloring contest. American Crayon responded by launching an educational department in 1912 that initiated a Crayograph contest across public schools throughout the country. The company enlisted members of the Manual Teachers’ Association. Among its employees was Florence Ellis, a former art teacher of the Cleveland Public Schools, who led the education work publishing books and materials for art students. 

Another early innovator, The Standard Crayon Company, introduced penny packages, compact packages with seven, eight or nine crayons for young children, selling for only a penny. The penny packages were an immediate success, heating up competition in the already fiercely competitive school market. American Crayon continued to target educators, launching a publication called Everyday Art that provided instructions and ideas on how to use their brands. 

Were crayons always designed with kids in mind?
Not at first. One of the first new crayon products to come out of the American Crayon factory in 1874 was known as 888, or railroad crayons. The black crayons became popular for railroad surveyors to mark critical points on the rails, and for freight conductors to mark train cargos. The 888 crayon was insoluble, whereas the ordinary chalk used at the time would be washed off by a rainstorm.

Confident the railroad industry would be a reliable customer, the company turned its attention to what they saw as its future—education. In fact, one of the American Crayon founders was an innovative educator, Marcellous Cowdery, who pushed the company to begin selling educational products to public schools and universities.

Is there an origin story of the American Crayon Company?
Three innovative families came together in the city of Sandusky, OH. The first moments of the company began as a hot, swirling mixture of English Dover chalk and Sandusky Bay gypsum cooked on the family stove by William Curtis, a recently discharged soldier from the Union Army. His experiments, done at the urging of his brother-in-law, Marcellus Cowdery, the superintendent of Sandusky Schools, created a modern, usable chalk for schools and businesses. Curtis soon added wax and color pigment and realized the value of his discovery—bringing color into the classroom. The discovery, combined with the financial genius of John Whitworth—someone who might be called a venture capitalist today—led to the creation of the American Crayon Company.  

Since its inception in the 1870s, the company grew steadily and included Prang brand paints and Kroma Color. The company continued on an innovative color spree by expanding its line of crayons and paints, which were used by children and art students in every state in the country and around the world. At its peak, it employed about 500 factory workers and salespeople, with offices in New York, San Francisco and Dallas. At one time, its Sandusky factory produced more crayons per year than anywhere else in the world.

How deeply do you think ACC has influenced art, culture and society in the U.S.?
That’s hard for me to know. I found many instances of their influence at the height of their productivity.

They definitely influenced educators by launching the magazine Everyday Art (from 1922–1972), which contained high-quality color illustrations and articles from teachers and educators on teaching techniques. The company recruited Bonnie Snow to lead the publication. Snow had pioneered the Household Art movement focused on schools and had co-authored a seminal book for artists with Hugo Froehlich, The Theory and Practice of Color.

The company also developed a following of artists from the high quality of products from its Prang brand paints and supplies. The Prang brand is still in existence today, owned by another company.  

The company’s influence also carried over into the automobile industry with Walter Chrysler, one of Henry Ford’s competitors, who sought out American Crayon for its work in color paint. Henry Ford famously said that customers could have “any color so long as it was black.” Chrysler believed people were bored with black and saw color as a way for drivers to express themselves. His visit to American Crayon’s Sandusky factory led Chrysler to introduce an affordable way for customers to personalize their automobile color. It was an instant sensation and Ford had to abandon his utilitarian attitude and rush to catch up. 

What did you learn from your research that surprised or enlightened you?
Modern crayons had their start in the holds of transatlantic sailing ships. Chalk had been carved out of the cliffs of Dover into blocks used as ballast in ships arriving from England. The blocks were then broken into small chunks and repurposed to mark on school blackboards. The chunks were brittle and impractical and made a grating sound on blackboards. The unnerving sound on students and teachers is what pushed Marcellous Cowdery to seek a new and improved chalk that led in turn to crayons. 

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