Crayons were my birthright. Crayons were in my blood. The blood of family lore matched American Crayon’s most powerful primary red crayon in every box. Crayons sent me down the road to adulthood.
By John Kropf
The following is an excerpt from John Kropf’s Color Capital of the World: Growing Up with the Legacy of a Crayon Company, available from the University of Akron Press.
Almost everyone is a snob about something—wine, food, music, or any of the other finer things in life. Me? At the age of five, I was a snob about crayons. I judged the crayons of those few classmates who didn’t buy the hometown brand, American Crayons, and thought to myself, “Those Binney and Smith Crayola Crayons aren’t any good.” American Crayons were the crayons we had at home and at school, and they were the crayons made in the factory down the street—a factory built by my great-grandfather and my great-uncles.
From my earliest memories, crayons were plentiful in our house. My older sister, Ann, and I had the basic eight-pack boxes, plus the wide sixteen packs and the twenty-four packs, both at home and at our desks at school. The largest boxes, with eighty crayons, came with a built-in sharpener and a slanted lid that flipped back to display crayons tightly packed like spectators on ascending rows of bleachers. After a few sessions of coloring, the crayons’ neat points were worn down to stubby ends, and some paper wrappers had peeled away, leaving naked, waxy cylinders of color. The well-ordered arrangement became a chaotic, incomplete spectrum.
Ann and I had such an excess of crayons that my father would collect them in plastic buckets and store them in our unfinished basement along with a large spool of blank newsprint hung under the stairs. We would unspool a few feet of newsprint at a time, tear off the sheet in ragged edges, and draw like mad artists on the concrete floor. Ann selected a lot of blue and turquoise, drawing dolphins and flying blue whales and sea creatures with long curlicue whiskers. She used black to outline the hulls and smokestacks of the great ocean liners of the early twentieth century. She added wings to the Titanic, the Olympic, and the Normandy and showed them flying through clouds with the flying whales. For the long, circuitous race car courses I drew, I needed brown and green to fill in trees. When I finished drawing, I would stage races between my steel Matchbox, Dinky, and Corgi cars, with the racetracks running the length of the newsprint. We never cleaned up, leaving loose crayons strewn about and giant wads of crumpled newsprint littering the floor. Sometimes Ann would tape her works to the bare cinder-block walls, recalling the prehistoric murals in the caves of Lascaux, France.
One of my earliest memories was the smell and taste of crayons. After long sessions of coloring, I stuck my face into the bucket of crayons and inhaled the waxy crayon smell to get a crayon high. I drew blue racing stripes on my arms or gashing red wounds on my face. I plunged my hands in the bucket past my wrists and agitated the crayons, pulling up fistfuls and letting them spill through my fingers like a mad miser with gold coins. The flakes wedged under my fingernails and marked my hands and wrists with random colors, making it look like I had some strange skin disease. I unwrapped my favorite colors—blue and green—and bit into each, but they both had the same waxy taste. The crayons in the buckets bore my teeth marks.
One night after dinner, when Ann and I were eight and six, my mother (Mary Whitworth Kropf) said we could draw with our crayons on the dining room walls. The room was large enough to hold a dining room table that seated twelve. I can’t remember what I drew, but I know I drew with gusto. Ann drew wild imaginative animals and more ocean liners. My parents joined in recreating familiar doodles from their childhood. Our dining room was illustrated by the entire family, the walls embedded with the American Crayon colors. The next week, the drawings were papered over, forever sealed into the walls of the house.
When Ann and I wore the crayons down to nubs, my mother and grandmother provided more. The supply came from only one manufacturer—the American Crayon Company, made in our hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. My mother’s mother, Dorothy Whitworth, known to Ann and me by her grandmother’s traditional nickname for grandmothers, “Nonee” (no-nee), had what seemed like an endless supply at her house. Most Sunday nights our family ritual was to drive to my grandmother’s white Dutch colonial in central Sandusky where she and her Bedlington terrier, Holly, would be waiting to greet us. My grandmother’s full head of white hair almost matched the curly fluff of Holly’s coat. Dorothy’s correct posture and the white gloves and hats that she wore when she went out impressed upon me that she came from another time. She had graduated from Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1919, studying the piano, and during our Sunday visits she would play Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” on a pink baby grand piano. She had painted it pink to match the coverings of her sofas in the living room, which hung with portraits of her Quaker great-grandparents.
At Sunday dinners my grandmother would have coloring books waiting with the black-and-red boxes of American Crayons—usually the twenty-four packs. Ann and I would loll about in the back family room, coloring in our books on worn Persian carpets. The tight weave of the wool carpets and their blocks of geometric patterns looked like the grids of a giant city. When I was tired of drawing, I would drive my matchbox cars along the grids of the carpets as if they were grids of a city street.
The early stories that my grandmother told me about the American Crayon Company at her Sunday afternoon dinner table with its white tablecloth and real silverware felt almost like I was receiving a sacrament in church. I was hearing the gospel of the crayon.
Three generations before, and a few blocks from my grandmother’s house, the Curtis family, a branch of my mother’s family, had experimented around the kitchen stove of a small, brick house to work out a formula for a substitute for the brittle chalk that was used in those days to mark on school blackboards. Up until that time, most chalk had been carved out of the cliffs of Dover into blocks used as ballast in sailing ships arriving from England. They were then broken into small chunks and repurposed for school chalk. But it proved brittle and consistently made an unpleasant scratching sound. The Whitworths, another branch of the family, had raised enough money to invest in building a small factory to put the recipe into full production and expanded to develop child-friendly color crayons and drawing supplies for artists. This was the start of the American Crayon Company. The mixture of the two families had been brought together over the mixture of the crayon recipe, and in 1889, a third family was added when my great-grandmother, Carrie Curtis, married my great-grandfather, John Whitworth.
The American Crayon factory was a brick fortress that sat in the heart of Sandusky, along the Norfolk Southern Railroad line. As a child, I found the complex imposing, with the malevolent tinge of a medieval castle. Yet I was proud that I had some connection to the factory that made crayons. Our elementary school, along with the other schools in the area, would take field trips to the factory to watch the workers boiling wax, adding pigment, and molding and drying the finished cylinders of color.
The black-and-red crayon boxes and steel-cased watercolor sets were something I used in school, and so did my classmates. I took pride in crayons as if I made them myself. Crayons were my birthright. Crayons were in my blood. The blood of family lore matched American Crayon’s most powerful primary red crayon in every box.
Crayons sent me down the road to adulthood.
Thirty-five years later, I had moved away and raised a family in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. Occasionally, I read online stories in The Sandusky Register, out of nostalgia and curiosity. Opening up a link one night, I read that the American Crayon factory was scheduled to be demolished. It seemed impossible that the massive brick building, something that had the majesty of the pyramids to me as a child, could be abandoned and demolished. The American Crayon Company had been one of the town’s oldest employers since its beginnings at the end of the Civil War. Even the symbol of the American Crayon Company stood for reliability: Old Faithful, the Yellowstone geyser.
In 2001, in a cost-saving move attributed to the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), American Crayon’s manufacturing equipment was dismantled and moved to Mexico. But before the machinery was removed, the Sandusky factory workers had to train their Mexican replacements on its operation. American Crayon’s workers, some of whom had been there thirty or forty years, spent the last days of their careers putting themselves out of a job. After 167 years of manufacturing in Sandusky, the factory shut its doors for the last time in 2002.
The building became more derelict by the year as legal wrangling over who would pay for the factory’s demolition pitted developers against one another. Wood floors collapsed, brick walls bowed outward, the mortar crumbled away. “American Crayon Company Sandusky Ohio,” painted in white, was still clearly visible from the street. The factory’s smokestack remained, an index finger pointing skyward.
One of my artifacts from the factory was a brittle cardboard sign that had been posted on the factory floor, warning in large bold type:
No Authorized Personnel Permitted on the Factory Floor
by Authority of the Company Treasurer, John Whitworth
I also had a few empty boxes from the 1930s and ’40s for artists’ crayons and a wooden drying rack that had been specially made to cradle children’s crayons before they were wrapped and boxed. The wood was an earthy color that carried a faint smell of pigment. I had carted around these artifacts over the decades, but the night I read The Sandusky Register story, I realized that of all my boyhood buckets of American Crayon coloring sticks, I no longer had a single crayon. I went online to eBay and found a couple of listings with pictures. Boxes were now selling to collectors at $18 in used condition. I bought five.
When the package arrived a week later, I cut open the heavily padded yellow envelope to see the distinctive black box with white lettering and a red banner with the word Crayonex. These were crayons designed for young school children—fatter in circumference, making them easier for small hands to hold. The boxes proclaimed the brand name Prang with the Old Faithful trademark, Made in the USA, by the American Crayon Company in Sandusky and New York. Along the side of the boxes, there was a white space for a name. Two of the five had penciled names in block letters, Kevin B. and David Brown. The boxes were sold with sixteen colors: red, blue, yellow, green, red-violet, yellow-orange, brown, orange, peach, white, turquoise blue, black, violet, magenta, yellow-green, and red-orange. The crayons were more than gently used. The best was a full box of all sixteen with only the wrapper on the brown crayon removed and the tip of the red crayon broken off to a blunt end. Another was in slightly better condition but missing the black crayon. The other two boxes were partial collections of the sixteen colors. The box in the worst condition had no wrappers and maybe only half the crayons. I wondered what drawings Kevin B., David Brown, and his anonymous friends had created for their teachers with their sixteen colors, and how their parents would have treasured those pictures and taped them to the door of the family refrigerator.
The factory also made millions of paint-box watercolors packaged in black, steel snap-tight tins with the red Prang brand on the front and eight ovals of basic colors on the inside: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, and black. The tin lids swung open to create an instant reservoir to add water and dip brushes. Every elementary school student had to buy them every year along with pencils, paste, and a drawstring bag to carry their supplies.
The crayons made in the Sandusky factory were shipped to five-and-dime stores like Woolworth’s and to local art supply stores throughout the United States. Kevin’s and David’s parents and countless other parents bought them to prepare their children for a promising new school year.
The Dixon Ticonderoga parent company slowly moved the American Crayon brand into the background until it was retired for good. It was no longer made in America, and the sad, immediate irony was that the factory in Mexico had transitioned to artists’ chalk using the same equipment that had served the factory in Sandusky for decades.
Buying the second-hand crayons was part of a pattern I had of reaching back to connect with the things and places. Artifacts were closely tied to my identity. But as I rolled the different colored crayons in my fingers trying to summon up the old feeling of drawing in the basement, I was reminded there was a spirit of inventiveness combined with business savvy that led to the crayon’s success. Why didn’t that spirit last longer and the success continue? Why didn’t the family that followed have the ability to continue to innovate? What happened to it all?
My mother always talked in glowing terms of her father and “the Whitworths and the Curtises.” As a child, this created a sense of pride, but as I grew older, I grew tired of the stories. I thought she had an overblown sense of pride and was almost embarrassed. The crayon business was not something she or I had contributed to. They were stories about someone else’s achievements. I resented her for dwelling in the past, and I wanted to put distance to that past and distinguish myself based on my own accomplishments.
The older she became, the more she lived in the stories of crayon prosperity. In her early eighties, she became bed-bound, and I relocated her to a nursing home close to my home in Arlington so I could visit her regularly. I would stop to see her on my way home from work and, while she could not remember if she had been served dinner, she could usually recall a story from growing up during her “crayon days” and loop over and over on a certain story.
But ordering the crayons made me want to return to Sandusky to see the old factory before it was gone and maybe sneak into the derelict building and salvage one last artifact, as if I could possess the spirit of the innovation in a physical object. The idea was like an Aladdin’s lamp—as if holding onto a brick from the factory and rubbing it could bring back the company and its greatness. If nothing else, a visit to Sandusky might bring me some understanding of my personal mythology of the Color Capital of the World.
No one in my family lived in Sandusky anymore. The four of us had moved away one at a time. In 1978, my father was transferred to Birmingham, Alabama, as part of a corporate acquisition. In 1981, my sister Ann married, and she and her husband, a Japanese chef, moved away to Charleston, South Carolina. I kept Sandusky as a home base during college and in 1988 moved to Washington, DC, to work as an attorney at the Department of Justice. My mother was the last to leave in the late 1990s, when she moved to Savannah to live near Ann.
In a strange coincidence, after receiving my eBay order of American Crayons, I returned to Sandusky the next year when my sister died. At a graveside service in Oakland Cemetery, my sister’s three adult children—Mary Ann, Olivia, and Daniel—had also heard the stories about the crayons from my sister and my mother. Now they were missing their mother and wanted to see what was left of the factory that was important to Ann. “Uncle John, we want to see the crayon factory,” Olivia said. “Sure thing,” I said. “This town used to be called the Color Capital of the World.”
We drove out of the gray cemetery and went in search of what was left.
John Kropf is the author of Color Capital of the World: Growing Up with the Legacy of a Crayon Company. His previous book, Unknown Sands: Journeys Around the World’s Most Isolated Country that Publisher’s Weekly praised as a fascinating narrative bound to hook adventurers. His writing has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, Florida Sun-Sentinel, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Kropf was born in Sandusky and raised in Erie County, Ohio. He is an attorney in the Washington, DC. area.