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The Crayon Man: How Crayola Crayons Made Creativity Accessible

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
October 31, 2022 3:00 am

The Crayon Man: How Crayola Crayons Made Creativity Accessible

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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October 31, 2022 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, from the bifocals to the cotton gin to the automobile to the iPhone, America country has produced creations that make our lives better… but sometimes, we invent things with recreation, and not productivity, in mind. Natascha Biebow, author of "The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons," is here to tell us the story of Edwin Binney.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

Share your team on live at the FIFA World Cup 2022 final in Qatar. Frito-Lay is giving you the chance to win two tickets by joining their pass the ball challenge. Add your picture to the Golden World Soccer Ball, then pass the ball to fellow fans to score additional entries.

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For more information about this program and how to apply, visit slash nissan. Cozy up to a cup of Starbucks caramel brulee latte with cream, crunchy caramel brulee toppings, steamed milk and espresso. Just bring your own comfy sweater. Find your cheer on the Starbucks app today. This is Lee Habeeb and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people.

And to search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeartRadio app to Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Americans over the century have been known for our inventions from the bifocals to the cotton gin, from the airplane to the iPhone. This country has produced creations that make our lives better.

But sometimes we invent things with recreation, not productivity in mind. Natasha Bebo, author of The Crayon Man, the true story of the invention of Crayola Crayons, is here to tell us the story of Edwin Binney. Yes, so Edwin Binney, who was the inventor of the Crayola Crayons, was the son of Joseph Binney. And he was educated in England and Germany and came to America around 1860. And he settled in a place called Shrub Oak, which is near Peekskill, New York. And there he started a chemical works and began producing charcoal. Shortly afterwards, in 1867, he decided to move to New York City and set up as a distributor.

And so he started distributing his products, which were mainly lamp black paints and imported colors. And Edwin Binney was born in 1866, so just before he moved to New York City. And already as a child, Edwin Binney loved nature and he was a strong swimmer. So he spent a lot of time doing things like swimming, fishing, hunting, sailing, and just generally loved being outside. That was something that people hadn't really explored a lot. Like why did he invent the Crayola Crayons?

So it was the first clue in my research. Some of his family members mentioned, and the people who worked for him, mentioned how much he loved color. And I think that love for color came from his connection to nature.

Once he had invented Crayola Crayons, people did mention that he would bring colorful bouquet of flowers and fruits and vegetables from his garden into the office to inspire people. And also just because he loved sharing that part of his life. So he was actually quite well educated by those standards. I mean we're talking late 1800s, so he studied in high school till he was 15. And then like many young men, and so he started working as a bookkeeper for his dad in the peak skill chemical works. And by the age of 17, he was a traveling salesman for the company. And his cousin, C. Harold Smith, who's the co-inventor and founder of the company that created the Crayola Crayons, he came to work in the business also by about 1879.

And Mr. Binney, the dad, Joseph, he was quite rigorous. He trained them into how to be really good salesmen. And eventually they became responsible for the pigment business, which is basically lamp black charcoal and red iron oxide, which is that kind of reddish paint that you see on the barns and lots of places around the US, especially rural places. And by 1885, dad Joseph retired, and he passed on the business to Edwin and Harold.

So by 19, they were kind of running their own business. And they formed the partnership that became Binney and Smith. And this was the company that later went on to make the Crayola Crayons. Something that's kind of interesting about Binney and Smith is that Harold and Edwin became this team. And Binney was the one who was really interested in the invention side, in the kind of research and development, finding new applications for the products that they made.

And by 1911, they decided that, you know, they could expand their business in a way that was kind of unusual. They could add lamp black to automobile tires and make them very durable, because before that the automobile tires were white. And I think this is something we forget because all our tires are now black. But by adding lamp black to the automobile tire rubber, they made the tires much more durable. And of course, this was an excellent part of their business. They made them a lot of money. And they made an even better kind of tire.

And eventually they would patent the formula that meant they would add the lamp black already to the liquid rubber. And so their tires were even better. So yeah, by 1900, they invested in a mill in eastern Pennsylvania.

We're quite near there. And that's where Crayola is still based today. And the mill that they bought there was used to grind up scrap slate that they mined locally in the region's quarries. And this created this allowed them to create one of their other signature products, which was a superior kind of slate pencil. So of course, back then, schoolrooms mostly use chalk and slate. But it was when they started to market this slate pencil that they became aware of a whole new market. And that was the educational market. And they started talking to people who worked in schools, namely the school teachers and school boards, and people who worked in the one room school rooms kept saying to them, we need better materials for our students. And so as a result of that, they invented another product that was very successful, which was their antiseptic chalk.

And this was a chalk that was dustless. And you're listening to Natasha Bebo, author of The Crayon Man. Tell the story of Edwin Binney. My goodness, it's also the story of a family business. And so many of our businesses, most of them in America are family owned businesses, and most of the big ones started as family owned businesses.

They keep the business going, the pigment business make a lot of money by putting black pigment into tires, making better tires and making black tires. And then of course, there are introduction to schools, and this thing called dustless chalk. And you can see where this is headed. Entrepreneurs looking for the next opening, the next invention when we come back more of the story of crayons here on our American stories. Leah Bebe here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.

But we truly can't do the show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to our American and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.

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Visit And we continue with our American stories and the story of Edwin Binney and the creation of the Crayola Crayon. When we left for the break, we just heard how Binney and his cousin, C. Harold Smith, had taken over Binney's father's pigment business, had invented something revolutionary in the early 1900s that we rarely use today. Thusless chalk.

Back to Natasha Bebo with the rest of the story. So before then, the schoolrooms were filled with this dust that went everywhere. I mean, if you were ever in a schoolroom that had a chalkboard, if your experience was your chore was to beat the clean, the dusty chalk erasers at the end of the day, you would know that quite a lot of dust comes from the chalkboard in any case. So by 1902, they'd invented this this kind of dustless chalk that was incredibly successful and teachers loved it, of course. And they took it to the 1904 World's Fair. It was held in St. Louis, which was an enormous fair where people came from all over.

It's probably the size of several football fields together. People came from all over to see what was new, all the new inventions, all the new gadgets, the new ways of doing things. And I like to tell kids on my school visits about some of the things that were new at the World's Fair, which included nobody had ever seen a hot dog or a hamburger before then, or even an X-ray machine. And of course, one of the new things that Binney and Smith were exhibiting were there was their dustless chalk and their Crayola crayons, which by then had been invented. And if you see pictures of this World's Fair, you see this enormous Ferris wheel that was also a huge feat of engineering at this this fair. And they won a medal for their dustless chalk.

And so they put that medal on all their products because they were good salesmen and they recognized the power of branding. And something I find really interesting is that already then they had their yellow and green look that you can still see on the Crayola crayons today. The Crayola crayons were invented partly because of this connection with the school market and the fact that Edwin's wife, Alice, was a school teacher. She was actually a very well educated lady. She came did school in England, which was unusual for some women at the time.

And she was very passionate about children's development. And she encouraged Edwin Binney to develop the crayons because she felt like children should have access to durable, brightly colored crayons to use in schools. And coincidentally around that time that they invented the Crayola crayons, which was in 1903, paper started to become more accessible.

So kids could actually keep their drawings rather than have them on slate and chalkboards where they weren't, you know, they had to be erased for the next lesson. So what was the problem with the crayons at the time was that artist crayons were available, but they came from Europe and they were extremely expensive. They weren't really something that most children or even, you know, families could access because of the cost. And the other crayons that were available were very dull and not brightly colored. They broke easily.

They crumbled. And most importantly, they were toxic. They used lots of toxic pigments and materials. Although I do say to kids, the crayons are non-toxic, but having said that, I wouldn't advise you to go and eat a whole box of crayons necessarily.

All it means is if you eat a little bit, you know, you're not going to be poisoned. But I think that awareness that materials could be made safer for especially children who were accessing toys and materials was something that was new at the time. So Binney's company had a big challenge ahead of them. Not only did they want to make the crayons affordable, but they had to make them non-toxic. And they also had to make them durable because they were going to be used by kids in schools.

So they decided to try to build on what they already did really well. They had invented a kind of black crayon using their lamp black pigments that was used for marking boxes and paper products and crates and things like that. And they decided, well, let's see if we can invent colored versions of these. So they did a lot of experimenting to try to figure out just the right formula, which is actually proprietary to Crayola.

So nobody actually knows what the formula is. But we do know that they used paraffin wax and they used pigments that were ground down from rocks and minerals to get the bright colors. And we do know that Binney was very passionate about, you know, trying to invent these. So when Edwin Binney came home excited, he'd finally managed to invent the Crayola crayons.

He didn't know what he should name them or what he should call them. And so Alice was the one who's credited with coming up with the name. And she suggested that we should have a made up name and it should be cray for a stick of chalk in French and olla for the oleaginous oily nature of the paraffin wax component that the Crayolas are made from. And so she created this word crayola and it stuck and people liked it. And that's how it came to be called Crayola. He invented them in 1903. They produced a box of eight colors.

So red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, and black. And they were sold for only a nickel, which was incredibly good value. And they did very well as a result. And I think, I think Edwin Binney would have been pretty proud that his invention is still being used by children today. He was somebody who would always try to look around him and see what was needed and listen and try to innovate. So one other thing that is important about Binney is that he was incredibly successful in his business and they made a lot of money, but he decided he would give it back to his community.

And he was a very generous person in that way, quite visionary. He gave back to his company and his workers during the Great Depression when times were really difficult. So most of the crayola crayon employees kept their jobs. He figured out ways for them to work and they would label and pack the crayons in different farms.

And he got the local farmers involved so that, you know, there were extra jobs. So yeah, so crayola was invented in 1903 and were many years later and crayolas are still popular. They are one of the most iconic American toys, one of the most recognized smells. And I imagine it's one of those things where people remember the crayolas from their childhood and want to share that with the children who they know. I think it's really interesting that the product is such good quality that it's still being used today.

It hasn't been super. I mean, there are obviously other generic brands and other kinds of crayons, but the recognition. And this is driven by an ethos set very early on when Binney and Smith invented the crayolas, which was that they wanted to make art and creativity accessible to everyone. And a terrific job on the production and storytelling by Robbie Davis and a special thanks to Natasha Bebo, author of The Crayon Man, the true story of the invention of crayola crayons. And it all began with Edwin's love of the outdoors, which of course turned into his love of color.

And then, of course, like all entrepreneurs solving a problem. And to this day, there aren't many products that are almost the same a century later and still loved by this country. The iconic brand, the Crayola Crayon, is one such item.

The story of the invention of the Crayola Crayon here on Our American Stories. Cheer your team on live at the FIFA World Cup 2022 final in Qatar. Frito-Lay is giving you the chance to win two tickets by joining their Pass the Ball Challenge. Look for the Golden World Soccer Ball, then find friends and score daily entries every time you pass the ball.

Scan the QR code on specially marked bags of lays, Cheetos, or Doritos, or visit When the world gets in the way of your music, try the new Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2. Next-gen earbuds uniquely tuned to the shape of your ears. They use exclusive Bose technology that personalizes the audio performance to fit you, delivering the world's best noise cancellation and powerfully immersive sound so you can hear and feel every detail of the music you love. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2. Sound shape to you. To learn more, visit When you take a next-level beach vacation at Catalonia Hotels and Resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean with
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