How Crayons Work


Modern Crayons
In the wake of the U.S. Civil War, several American firms jumped into the crayon business and a Massachusetts manufacturer named Charles A. Bowley became the first to use a material called paraffin. Garry Gay/Getty Images
In the wake of the U.S. Civil War, several American firms jumped into the crayon business and a Massachusetts manufacturer named Charles A. Bowley became the first to use a material called paraffin. Garry Gay/Getty Images

Who manufactured the very first wax crayon is unknown, but a Parisian arts supply manufacturer named Joseph Lemercier is a likely candidate. In the 1820s, his company was producing and selling colored wax crayons [source: Welter]. A few years later, in 1835, the German company J. S. Staedler began manufacturing a wax crayon with a wooden casing. The wax, however, was hard and difficult to use [source: Bell]. Up to this point, all attempts at making a crayon were limited to using beeswax, which was both expensive and hard. The next step forward would be a change in material.

In the late 1800s, the growing bitumen coal mining operations in Eastern Europe began turning out a waxy byproduct that became known as ceresin. Ceresin was cheaper and softer than beeswax and the Czech company Offenheim & Ziffer began using it to produce a new kind of crayon that was soon praised for the durability of the marks it made [source: Bell].

In the wake of the U.S. Civil War, a number of American firms jumped into the crayon business and a Massachusetts manufacturer named Charles A. Bowley became the first to use a material similar to ceresin called paraffin. Paraffin is derived from coal and remains the wax used in most contemporary crayons today. Bowley was also one of earliest manufacturers to make those colored wax sticks in the round, pencil-shaped form we recognize today [source: Bell].

As Welter points out, the reason for the sudden post-Civil War uptick in crayon-making was, for the most part, because of the rapid industrialization that took place in the second half of the 19th century. This, together with the newly available material of paraffin, created the conditions for the modern, mass-produced crayon.

By lucky happenstance, these innovations in crayon-making coincided with a burgeoning interest in early childhood education. Crayons, easy to store, hold and use without fear of spilling paint or staining clothes, were a natural fit for kids. As kindergartens popped up across the country, the indelible link between children and crayons was forged.

Key to this connection was the creation of new, nontoxic means of manufacturing crayons. "All crayons were toxic up until the kindergarten movement in the 1880s," Welter says. "There were a couple of big documented cases of poisoning that helped further the changes. The combination of paraffin wax being readily available at economical prices, the need to school in the industrial age and the push for art in schools fostered the industry need."

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