How Crayons Work


Coloring with Crayons
According to Crayola, the most popular crayon color ever is blue. Michael H/Getty Images
According to Crayola, the most popular crayon color ever is blue. Michael H/Getty Images

For many people, crayons are part of the world of childhood and so they belong in the realm of apolitical innocence we associate with kids. But even crayons can be political. In 2014, a law student in India sued an Indian manufacturer for putting the name "skin" on the label of a pink crayon [source: Reilly]. This is only one of the more recent instances of controversy associated with crayons and color.

For many years the Crayola company had a crayon called "flesh." Crayola maintained that this referred to the more-or-less universal color found on the palm of the human hand regardless of ethnicity [source: Boboltz]. However, researchers in the 1960s noted that kids used it to color in drawings of people, interpreting it as the default skin color. By 1962, Crayola dropped the "flesh" label in favor of "peach" for that shade of its crayon. Similarly, the company changed the crayon name "Indian red" to "chestnut." The "Indian red" named was derived from a plant pigment from India, but there was concern that it would be misread as a reference to racist ideas about the skin color associated with Native Americans [source: Davidson].

Other color changes have been less fraught. Early colors were simply appropriated from the palette of artists' paints. Many of Crayola's colors, such as "raw umber," "cobalt blue" and "Venetian red" have since been dropped from the lineup of classic kids' crayon boxes to make room for new colors. But to replace them, Crayola has worked hard to create new shades. The most recent color to be retired by Crayola was "dandelion" in March of 2017. It was just the third time the company has retired colors from its palette, and the first time it removed one from its box of 24 crayons.

Welter says the company introduced "gold," "silver" and "copper" back in 1903, but they didn't add other metallic until the 1980s. However, they've been busy introducing other colors. Welter has identified 331 distinct colors, although Crayola has sometimes tried to pull a fast one by giving the same color two different names and putting them in the same box [source: Boboltz].

Starting in the early 1990s, Crayola began outsourcing the naming of new colors to crayon fans [source: Boboltz]. Some of the more memorable results have been, "Macaroni and Cheese," "Tickle Me Pink" and "Purple Mountain's Majesty."

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