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A Brief History of the World’s Finest Plaything: The Crayon

What is the most easily recognizable plaything for anyone, from a toddler to a grandparent? Consider the simple crayon. Safe, educational, and relatively inexpensive, crayons can tempt us all.

Surprisingly, coloring books, or properly, paint books, appeared first. McLoughlin Brothers of New York is credited with inventing books of line art to paint, in the 1880s. Even in the late 1700s, the Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and later his student Friedrich Fröbel, who founded the concept of kindergarten, brought new concepts to childhood education. They believed children could benefit from art education as a means of enhancing conceptual understanding, developing cognitive ability, improving skills towards careers, and even enhancing spirituality. The early coloring books, like so many today, featured then-popular characters and stories. But paints were messy, and manufacturers soon came up with safe, clean alternatives.

Many different makers began experimenting with colors emulsified in wax around the turn of the 20th century. These were child-safe modifications of oil-based crayons used by artists for centuries. Beginning around 1902, Binney & Smith’s Crayola brand was by far the most successful and recognized. But other firms made crayons for kindergarten use as early as 1880. Teachers, as well as parents, soon learned the value and attraction of coloring with crayons. Color a picture of George Washington and create a history lesson; color a flower and learn some basic biology. Or just color—for the sheer joy of it!

The enduring popularity of crayons led to their induction into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998. In recent years adults have taken them up, to help them cope with everyday anxieties. Coloring books titled “Stress-relieving Patterns,” “Color Me Happy,” and “Good Vibes,” are available everywhere. And coloring books for children continue to be a mainstay, bringing popular subjects such as trains, farm animals, and unicorns to life for any toddler with a crayon. Naturally, popular culture lends subjects just waiting to be colored. Star Wars, the LEGO Batman Movie, and video games such as Angry Birds are just a few of the subjects available. Crayons are so simple, but almost unlimited in the ways they can foster a child’s imagination. As tools for a child or adult to bring a character, a hero, or an idea only imagined into technicolor reality, crayons may be the ultimate plaything!

Nicolas Ricketts is Curator at the National Museum of Play at The Strong.

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