Saturday, March 14, 2009

Vintage Crayola

Do you remember your first big box of Crayola crayons? While I may not remember the exact one, or how old I was when I received it, I do remember the excitement of the perfect, unused tips (it always felt like a shame to spoil them); I recall the built-in sharpener, which in my childhood world was at least as good as sliced bread (with PB & J, of course) and which made some amends for the unavoidable wear-and-tear. No more 8-, 16-, 24-, or 48-count boxes for me; those did not come with the sharpener. I always lusted after the 64-crayon box, with its brown cardboard tiers displaying the colors to their best advantage. The year I was born, this was the biggest size box you could purchase. Now there's the whopping 120-color box, which came into existence in 1998, according to the Crayola Web site color chronology. Still, I like the 64-count assortment, and it's the first one I bought for my son once he could hold the slimmer crayons. Now, about the colors themselves. Following are the ones I remember best . . . and, no, I am not cheating by jogging my memory with my son's art supplies; he's in between boxes and has an affinity for the twist-up crayons now anyway. First, the pinks and purples: I particularly liked carnation pink (because, at the time, I liked carnations; I thought they were pretty and did not yet associate them with cheap holiday gestures or with funerals). I liked orchid and thistle, liked that the names were exotic (to me, at the time) and that they came from nature. And in fact, these colors provided an education; I remember asking my mother what a thistle was, simply because it was printed on the side of the crayon. I also similarly learned about the plants goldenrod (my dad's allergic) and cornflower. (I heard my mother's eyes actually described as cornflower blue once, which I don't think is accurate, and this was disappointing when I used the crayon, because—did you ever notice?—the color of the cornflower crayon just never really reproduces well. It doesn't look on paper like it does in its pure, concentrated crayon form.) I remember the colors salmon, sea green, apricot, cadet blue, and bittersweet. I liked all of those. The metallics were a letdown; I felt cheated: gold was not shiny, silver looked like gray on the page; the copper came closest. And then there were the pairs of "inverted name" crayons that really blew open my idea of color, allowing me to understand for the first time perhaps, that color values were not entirely discrete or flat, that they were most often gradations of each other: green blue, blue green; orange red, red orange; yellow orange, orange yellow. (Tell a small child that "blue green" is not the same as "green blue" and she'll laugh at you, but show her the crayons and it's true, they are not the same!) Some of these, plus some other alluring shades or interesting crayon names—such as maize, lemon yellow, blue gray, raw umber—were, I discovered, retired to the Crayola Hall of Fame in 1990. (Orange red was replaced with vivid tangerine; although raw umber is now gone, raw sienna is still in use.) Another color I remember, although apparently this shouldn't be possible: flesh. According to the Crayola site, the name "flesh," which could only be said to resemble Caucasian skin, was "voluntarily changed to 'peach' in 1962, partially as a result of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement." This was before I was born; however, I am sure that I still saw this crayon in my boxes for a time. I also had the color indian red, which didn't get changed until 1999, becoming "chestnut," despite the fact that this was not ever supposed to have referenced the stigmatic name for a Native American skin tone. Finally, there were those "ultra" colors, those fluorescent shades added in the early 1970s (of course) and eventually renamed in 1990. (The living language of cool no longer supports the prefix "ultra," I guess). Nowadays, there are hundreds of colors, and the core 120 assortment contains such names (either horrifying or just plain baffling) as: fuzzy wuzzy brown, piggy pink, manatee, beaver—really? beaver?—and outer space, which I thought was basically colorless, but in the box is probably some deep shade of blue or near-black; I haven't ever seen this one. (I have also, I am happy to say, never seen the consumer-named colors of "macaroni and cheese" and "purple mountain's majesty," both from 1993. Yuck.) Anyway, one thing is clear, my son's generation has come a long way from mine, mine from my parents', and just imagine the deprivation of 1903, when the following crayons launched the history of Crayola: red, blue, yellow, green, orange, violet, brown, and black. That's it. Count 'em. Eight. But there's one thing I know has always been, and will always be the same: the thrill of a brand new, factory-sharpened, pristine box of colors just waiting for you to pull across a blank, white page.


  1. Oh man! I remember my first big box of Crayola crayons! My Mom never wanted to buy me them, so I tricked my Dad into do it one night at the grocery store. She wasn't happy about it, but I couldn't care less!! Finally having that built in sharpener meant, no dull crayons ever again!! But I never liked having to tear off the wrapper just to sharpen the crayon. I remember trying to keep the crayons all nice and neat in the brown cardboard tiers. Wow, such great memories! Loved the post!!

  2. Like you, I also remember not being happy about tearing the paper wrapper around the crayons in order to sharpen them. Glad this post brought you some good memories. I think that as people get older, it's important to remember that something as simple as a new box of crayons could bring so much joy. Our lives get so complicated—some of this is unavoidable, but some of it we do to ourselves, and it's good to remember the simpler, childhood pleasures. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I remember "burnt umber" and "burnt sienna", not "raw"--hmmm... I couldn't find the 64-count boxes near me, so I bought the 96-count crayons--WITH the built-in sharpener! My daughter was just as excited to open it as I was, all those years ago.