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The History of Crayons

Back in February 2010 I rewrote the Wikipedia definition of “crayon” because at the time the article really didn’t have any factual or detailed information other than the well known piece about the creation of the Crayola brand back in 1903.  As I looked through more and more web sites and reference books, it occurred to me that the history of the crayon didn’t really exist and much of the information out there was inaccurate or misleading.  Even Crayola had a number of facts wrong on their own history; which is understandable; they’re in the business of making crayons, not documenting every minutia from their heritage.  Having studied and collected crayons for many years, I felt I had the expertise and the interest to try and capture the story from the bits and pieces that exist.  Like any historian or researcher, sometimes those pieces fit together and other times an entire mystery still remains to be solved.  An accurate history of the crayon might never be told but we can certainly start the process and hope to fill in the puzzle pieces so that the story will be available for others to use and learn from as their interest or need arises.


In the Beginning


Greek Ship.bmpThe history of crayons, like the crayon itself, is not entirely clear but nevertheless still very colorful.  In the form we think of a crayon today, a combination of pigment and wax, the history is relatively short compared to its chalk and colored pencil cousins.  While the word crayon goes back to 1644, a diminutive of the French word craie (chalk) and the Latin word creta (Earth), we must go back much earlier in history to find evidence of wax-based color mediums.


The notion to combine a form of wax with pigment actually goes back thousands of years.  A technique using beeswax combined with colored pigment to bind color into stone or wood is a process known as “encaustic” painting.  The word encaustic means to “burn in”.  This method of coloring is  a misneomer, however, because it can actually be done using hot or cold techniques. 


The encaustic technique used in art dates back nearly 3000 years to Egyptian & Greek times when heated waxes with pigment were used to decorate warships and the walls of tombs.  Ancient Greek shipbuilders applied coatings of wax and resin to weatherproof their ships. Pigmenting the wax gave rise to the decorating of warships. This encuastic method is even referenced by Homer (800 B.C.) who wrote of the painted ships of the Greek warriors who fought at Troy.


From these auspicious origins the technique improved and developed to the point of using it for colored wax paintings on panels.  One of the earliest references to this art technique is from the Roman historian, Pliny, in the first century AD.  According to Pliny, the encaustic technique had a variety of applications.  It was used for portraits, scenes of mythology on panels,  coloring of marble and terra cotta and for work on ivory.


fayumpainting.bmpThe Greek and Roman Empires used the technique for painting marble works of art and for funeral portraits.  The Fayum funeral portraits are the best known existing examples of the technique used in ancient times.


Encaustic was a slow, costly, difficult technique to do.  Despite the advantages of waterproofing, color build up in relief, and the wax giving a rich optical effect to the pigment that gave the work startlingly life-like effects, the technique fell into disuse after the fall of the Roman empire.


The technique didn’t vanish completely.  There is evidence of indigenous people in the Philippines around 1600-1800 using a similar method.  In the 18th century a French archeologist named Anne-Claude-Philippe Comte de Caylus studied old writings and the ancient murals of Pompeii to experiment with encaustic techniques.  He paved the way for the encaustic of our modern times.  He wrote several papers on encaustic and developed followers of his methods from the Paris Academy.   A statue was erected in the library of the conent Saint-Germain-de-Près to recognize his efforts in rediscovering encaustic Art.  However, artists and scholars of the 19th century lacked  enough sources to be able to reconstruct the original encaustic methods and so they re-invented techniques to establish a “New Encaustic Art” which began to develop in Germany and stemmed out to the rest of the world from there and continues to this day.


While using wax to color in the encaustic methods does have roots tied to the modern crayon, the technique cannot be considered the official origin of wax crayons as we think of them today.  Since modern crayons are intended to be held and colored with in a classroom or as crafts for children, we must look to other art mediums and their history to fill in more of the puzzle pieces into the history of the crayon.


The Pastel Connection


pastel.bmpSince we associate the modern crayon definition to that of a child’s wax crayon, then we must look to other art mediums that used wax as at least a partial basis for developing a coloring stick for artists and others alike.  Certainly since the word crayon has chalk in its root definition, the modern crayon owes some of its origins to the original chalk based drawing implements.  Many crayon manufactuerers of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries were exclusively dealing with chalk “crayons” and not wax crayons.  To add to the confusion, colored pencils were also labelled as crayons in the Nineteenth century and even into the early part of the Twentieth century.   


Pastels were most certainly not a crayon but as they were formed with pure pigment in a powder that is rolled into round or square sticks and held together with methylcellulose, a non-greasy binder, they also share in the origins of the wax crayon in the development of the artists stick, a precursor to the crayon stick.  A pastel drawing can either be blended or left with visible strokes and lines.  The key thing about a pastel is that it must be protected by a fixative or by glass.  One of the main differences between pastels and the modern wax crayon is that the wax crayon doesn’t easily come off in your hands like a true pastel does.  On the flip side, once a true pastel drawing is protected in glass or with a fixative, it never fades, yellows, darkens or cracks.


The history of the pastel is quite old as well.  Leonardo da Vinci used pastel highlights in one of his chalk portraits clear back in 1499.  He claimed to have learned the technique from French artist Jean Perréal.  Both he and Michelangelo merely used pastel powder in their art.  The true origin of pastel can be traced back to the Sixteenth Century, when Guido Reni, Jacopo Bassano, and Federigo Barocci were notable practitioners. However it was actually Rosalba Carriera, 1675-1750, a female Venetian artist, that is credited with being the first to make consistent use of pastel and to have developed the pastel stick back in 1720. 


conte.bmpFrom that point we have to look at Conté Crayons as the next real medium developed to bring us closer to our modern wax crayon medium.  Conté crayons were developed in 1795 by Nicolar-Jacques Conte, a French scientist, in response to graphite shortages caused by the Napoleonic Wars. He set out to design an art stick which could be made with a small percentage of graphite, allowing it to be fabricated from materials obtained within France. The result was a mixture of clay and graphite which was kiln fired to achieve a hard texture.  This harder pastel based crayon didn’t need a fixative like softer based pastels; a common trait also found in the modern wax crayon. 


Unlike the wax crayons though, Conté crayons didn’t originally use wax in their formulation.  Wax crayons are composed primarily of kaolin (white clay), wax or fatty acids, and dyes. School, or children's, crayons are not typically intended for professional use because they are not designed to meet the artist's need for lightfastness and permanence.  One of the key differences toward the development of the modern wax crayon was in the elimination of toxic materials to allow for safe use with children.  Substances based in oils, charcoals and clays were unfit to use in such an environment.


The Rise of the Wax Based Crayon 


Though it is not certain when wax-based crayons began, one of the earliest possibilities lies with Joseph Lemercier (born Paris 1803—died 1884), considered by some of his contemporaries to be “the soul of lithography”.  Lithography relied on wax based mediums to apply to their printing process and as a result, Joseph may have been one of the founders of the modern crayon having run a business in Paris starting in 1828, producing a variety of crayon and color related products.


Next:  Part 2 – The late 1800s