The Definitive History of the Colors of Crayola
Part 1 – In the beginning there was…
This is a multi-part series of articles written to tell the tale of the history of color names for Crayola.
Who’s Right and Who’s Not
I’ve now seen countless efforts trying to document a comprehensive list of the colors that Crayola used for their Crayola line of crayons. The challenge in doing so is not that there are so many colors out there. In reality there have only been several hundred unique colors used for their flagship line. The difficult part is being comprehensive, substantiating their complex color progression and putting them into an accurate timeline.
Wikipedia is bereft of commentary challenging just who is right when it comes to referencing sources in putting together a list of colors. Unfortunately Wikipedia is not a forum for original research and so I’m going to do it myself with the help of those that have come before me and those collectors I associate with that happen to know a lot about Crayola colors.
Let’s go ahead and state the primary difficulty: Just because Crayola says so on their web site doesn’t make it fact! There, I’ve said it. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s merely a matter of perspectives. Those that are passionate about Crayola’s colors are sticklers for detail and accuracy. You won’t find either on Crayola’s web site. Think about their perspective. They aren’t in business to document every minutia of their history; they’re living in the now and selling crayons. Sure, they do a lot to acknowledge their heritage and history. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have the concept of “retired” crayons. We wouldn’t have special anniversary boxes and retro-inspired collections. As they haven’t spent that time documenting what was produced and sold over their long successful history, when it did come time to put out some information on their original colors and their timelines, they spent a little bit of time and thought it would be useful. What I don’t think they realize is that instead of a small percentage of folks that are really into the minutia of color detail, there are actually a large number of folks interested in their color history. Their placing of a cursory chronology of colors creates more head scratching, confusion and mistrust than was ever intended. Had they spent the 50 years collecting their colors like my friend Kurt, they would have an elaborate chronology list. Had they spent the 10 years researching and documenting that I have, they’d have this entire web site and more. Had they spent the years detailing every conceivable variation in a named color printed on a crayon wrapper as my friend Donna (with help from Alan, Kurt and the rest of us) then you’d be amazed at the level of their historical expertise and accuracy. And let’s not forget John Astolfi who was one of the first to question and research some of the inconsistencies. But Crayola doesn’t have the time, resources or desire for that level of detail and accuracy because there hasn’t necessarily been any value in doing so. It’s only now when so many iconic companies are forming their own heritage departments that they are seeing the benefit of more detail and focus. But even in doing that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be comprehensive enough to satisfy all audiences. So I’ll do it.
Examine the Evidence
With that prefaced, we know that much has been documented on the company selling the first Crayola boxes door to door for a nickel back in June 1903 and how that famous 8-color box contained the original color palate for Crayola. Supposedly those colors were: Black, Blue, Brown, Green, Orange, Red, Violet and Yellow. However, before we can substantiate or invalidate that core color fact, we have to dispel yet another couple of myths. First, Crayola didn’t just have a box of 8 colors, sell some and later jump to 16 colors as their web site might cause you to deduce. Evidence shows they had a full line of products from the very beginning. Crayola came into the marketplace in June of 1903 and by early 1904 they published a small mini-tutorial pamphlet instructing consumers on how to paint using their new product. The pamphlet was available for 10 cents and along with their instructions it featured a picture of thirteen of their original product line assortments.
This is the earliest documented evidence of their original product line but even this is incomplete; a common malady of crayon manufacturers who back in the day chose to selectively feature some products but leave out others. Another extremely useful document I used as a source to build their color chronology was an internal product cost sheet from 1905 that is in the National Archives as part of a Binney & Smith donated collection of research material. In there, they have listed 26 different Crayola boxes by number. They were the No 6, No 8, No 12, No 18, No 24, No 30, No 41, No 41B, No 45, No 47, No 49, No 51, No 51B, No 53, No 54, No 55, No 57, No 97, No 99, No 99A, No 100, No 101, No 105, No 105 Charlton, No 200 and No 500. I physically have all but a couple of their entire original line up of boxes and I’ve spoken with the owners of the others. Two common undeniable themes resided in nearly all of their original packaging. The first was a little girl that was featured on the back of nearly every single crayon box on their standard Crayola line. The second was Peter Paul Rubens pictured on their higher end line they used to target artists. Even the Crayola name logo on the earliest of their product was inconsistent; as if they were experimenting with various fonts and looks for the Crayola line. It wouldn’t be until they formulated the Gold Medal concept in 1905 that they would start to adapt to a standard look among all of their assortments.
And that brings us to the second myth. Neither of these boxes was the original 8-color Crayola box used to sell door to door in 1903:
Now granted, these were the first of the Gold Medal line put out. But if you look closely on the crayon box, it clearly is dated 1904 on the medal because they won that medal during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair which ran from April 1904 to November 1904. The medals would have been awarded sometime during this fair and they would have had to take that medal and design a box for it, have it manufactured and then start selling it. No, that wouldn’t have happened until 1905 at the earliest. Which begs the question: If they were selling an 8-color box back in June 1903, what box was it?
In truth, there isn’t enough research documentation to substantiate their story either way. Of the 26 original containers they put Crayola color into only one box was sold to the general public that contained 8 colors. That was the No 54 box. The No 105C had 8 colors as well, but it was exclusively sold to a retail store.
It might very well be that they started their sales with this very box. I don’t think anyone now knows what the logic was behind the numbering system they used. Some of the boxes numbers did correspond to the number of colors in the box but the earliest boxes didn’t.
This box contained the following colors: Black, Blue, Brown, English Vermilion, Green, Orange, Violet, Yellow
Technically, their color story wouldn’t be accurate because English Vermillion was the original name for Red-Orange and so a true Red wasn’t offered in this assortment. However, considering how Crayola tended to generalize and simplify their web site one can conclude that they got it close enough for their purposes.
It’s unfortunate that there aren’t a lot of documents substantiating their product line and their color offerings. They didn’t really advertise in that first year of production or if they did, those ads haven’t surfaced in any research done to date.
Other than the original “Art of Crayola” pamphlet that was most likely used as a job catalog for prospective clients, the first advertisements for Crayola started in late 1904 in various school and art publications. One of the earliest advertisements was a generic ad to hold a coloring contest they used to promote their new product. Clearly they must have produced ads in 1904 to garner involvement in the contest since the cutoff date to enter was April 1905 but the earliest ad I could find was from January 1905. Though this advertising campaign came first, this particular ad didn’t help substantiate anything related to colors or containers or dates.
Shortly after their contest advertising campaign, in March 1905, they moved
to a more generic ad to feature their new product. Their March 1905 ad in the