Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

Those Colorful Crayons

16 Crayola crayons, Binney & Smith, about 1968 Think of the ubiquitous crayon—generally a three-inch-long, likely worn down (or possibly broken!) waxy object. There could be some in your utility drawer at home right now, or maybe there is a bucketful in your family’s playroom. Head on over to any family restaurant and there’s a good chance you find some waiting at your table ready to be used on the nearest paper placemat. You might even find evidence of crayon usage on your child’s bedroom wall, an ideal mural surface for tiny humans.

Much like the effects of Play-Doh, most adults wax nostalgic over crayons as objects from our youth which enveloped our senses: their colorful hues, the feel of the wrapper gripped between our index finger and thumb, their distinct waxy smell, and of course, the slight “crackling” noise that you hear when lifting a pressed crayon off of a piece of crisp paper. When we reflect on crayons, many of us of think of Crayola crayons—the most famous brand of crayons in American history. However, Crayolas were far from the first crayons made. Evidence of crayon-like drawings can be traced back to 100 A.D. when Egyptians formulated encaustic painting, a process that combined hot beeswax and pigments. The word “crayon” came into usage as early as 1644, originating from the words craie (French for chalk) and creta (the Latin term for earth). Similarly, pastels and conté crayons, graphic media heavily used by artists throughout Europe from the 17th to 19th centuries, pre-date contemporary crayons.  

Milton Bradley Company trade catalog, 1925 Modern day crayons began selling in the 1870s and you could have any color you wanted—as long as it was black. They were used mainly as waterproof markers in factories, but these crayons were made up of toxic substances and not suitable for use by children. By the early 1880s, several manufacturers began to add pigmented colors to wax crayons and eventually produced crayon sets. Some early manufacturers of crayons include E. Steiger & Co., Franklin Mfg., Eberhard Faber, Joseph Dixon Crucible Co., Prang Educational Company, Milton Bradley, Standard Crayon Company, American Crayon Company, Eagle Pencil Company, and New England Crayon Company.

No. 8 Crayola School Crayons, Binney & Smith, about 1905 There have been more than 300 crayon manufacturers in the United States, though the brand that still sells the most is Crayola. Initially developed in 1902 by the Binney & Smith Company (now Crayola LLC), Crayola crayons were first marketed and sold to schools in 1903. Taking into account the feedback that they received from schoolteachers, cousins Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith used waxes, talc, and pigments mixed together in small batches to form a non-toxic product with paper labels, thus making their crayons safe and mess-free. The first pack of Crayola crayons consisted of eight colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, black, and brown) and sold for five cents. Alice Binney, Edwin’s wife, was credited with the name “Crayola,” by blending the word craie with the first part of the word oleaginous (oily paraffin wax).

Today Crayola crayons are manufactured using automated machines that mix liquefied paraffin and powdered pigments together which are then poured into molds, hardened, and prepped for packaging. Crayola LLC manufactures more than three billion crayons per year and currently produces more than 120 different colors. As the result of their longevity, popularity, and household name status, Crayola Crayons were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998.

The thought of coloring again with crayons seems very relaxing, I may just have to spring for a new box of crayons and one of those trendy coloring books for adults and let my creativity take over!

The Toy That Starts the Holiday Season

Even though many homes already display bright lights or pine wreaths and most stores are stocked to the gills with Christmas merchandise, some folks can’t quite begin the holiday season until they see the latest Hess toy truck.

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The Greatest Toy Never Sold

Not every Hall of Fame toy comes from a store. Take the cardboard box, for instance. No company advertises it. Parents don’t line up for it during the holiday shopping season. No one sings its jingle. It costs nothing. Yet the cardboard box offers the imagination a feast. With crayons and tempera paint, you can turn the cardboard box into an ocean liner, a space ship, a dragster, a covered wagon, a submarine, or a castle.

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What Goes Around, Comes Around

When I was twelve, I cared about only two things, and the bicycle wasn't one of them. I lived for playing football and reading science fiction, especially that genre's dark prophet, H.G. Wells. I imagined the future the way he did: filled with invading Martians, human evolution gone awry, world anarchy, nuclear chain-reaction, a sputtering, cooling sun, you name it. When Wells imagined the shape of things to come, he saw frightful scenarios. Disaster loomed.

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Barbie, You're Beautiful

Barbie. Love her or not, you have to admit that she is important.

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Holiday Geek Gift List

Although the electronic games of my youth have since evolved into something different, one thing has remained the same: savvy marketers continue to cash in on the popularity of electronic games through non-electronic merchandise. In addition, Internet storefronts allow innovative individuals to create and market their own electronic game-related products.

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The Frisbee: Spinning the Truth

Some tall tales are so pleasing that you wish they were true. Not the kind that are just mistakes, like believing that John F. Kennedy was a gifted ventriloquist or that Shania Twain is Mark Twain’s great grand-daughter. I’m talking about plausible old yarns like the one about the young George Washington fessing-up to cutting down the cherry tree. The story isn’t true, but generations of Americans thought it should have been because it fit our Founding Father’s virtues so well.

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The Ball: Right Back at You, Jon Stewart

When the National Toy Hall of Fame inducts new toys each year, people notice—tens of millions notice.

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Duncan Yo-Yo: Strings Attached

There’s something liberating about the

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Hurray for Inventors!

Toy and game inventors deserve their time in the spotlight, according to the annual TAGIE (Toy and Game Inventors Expo) Awards. Bestselling books and hit songs earn authors and singers publicity as well as financial rewards. But create a million-selling toy or game and practically no one knows your name. The TAGIE Awards honor the people behind the playthings, celebrating their creations and the fun they’ve brought to our lives.

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Finnish Question Sends NCHEG Deep Into Archives

A recent e-mail inquiry from a researcher in Finland gave me a great opportunity to mine our vast trade catalog collection for information about the prehistory of electronic games. The researcher wanted to know more about the origins of pre-computer electric quiz games of the 1940s and 1950s.

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