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Crayola LLC

For many children, the first introduction to color and how it can be used comes with crayons.

Who doesn't remember the excitement of opening a box of crayons and starting to color the world — whether on a simple piece of paper that could be hung on the refrigerator or in a coloring book?

Then in 1958, there was an explosion of color: a giant box of crayons in 64 exotic colors such as goldenrod, raw umber, carnation pink, burnt sienna, periwinkle and wisteria. Plus it came with its own built-in crayon sharpener. Did life get any better than that?

The Crayola 64 pack turns 50 this year. "It debuted on the 'Captain Kangaroo' show," says Stacy Gabrielle, a spokeswoman for Crayola. "It's a classic toy, unlike any other. I think it's one we all have an emotional connection to."

Plus, there's that distinctive smell — one that a Yale University study ranked 18 on the list of the 20 most recognizable smells (coffee was No. 1; peanut butter was No. 2).

In the past 50 years, some 200 million Crayola 64 boxes have been sold — containing 12.8 billion crayons, or enough to circle the Earth 24 times. Just think of the coloring they've done.

The Crayola 64 pack has become such an American icon that, in 1998 when it turned 40, it was given a place of honor in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. "It's right there with Dorothy's ruby slippers and Mr. Spock's ear," says Gabrielle. "Although it's not always on display, just knowing it is there is a big thrill."

It belongs there for a variety of reasons, according to David Shayt, cultural history curator for the Smithsonian. "Opening a box is like stepping through the door to Oz. It's like opening a box of memories for adults, and walking into the process of discovery for children. There's a community of colors inside the box that peppers everyone's imaginations."

That same year, the box was also inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

The first Crayola crayons were introduced in 1903 by Edwin Binney and his cousin C. Harold Smith, who owned a chemical plant in upstate New York.

They specialized in making the pigments that were used on the red barns of the day. But after noticing a need in schools for safe and affordable wax crayons, the pair introduced the first box of eight crayons: black, brown, blue, red, violet, orange, yellow and green. It sold for a nickel. The name was chosen by Edwin's wife, Alice, a former school teacher. It comes from "craie," the French word for "chalk," and "ola" from "oleaginous."

Over the years, Crayola added more colors to its repertoire. Some 120 colors in all have been developed for various collections, but the 64 pack has remained fairly consistent, except for a few special changes.

For example, when the box was introduced in 1958 "Prussian blue" became "midnight blue," in 1962 the color "flesh" was changed to "peach" and in 1991 "Indian red" became "chestnut."

Eight colors that appeared in the original 64 box were "retired" in 1990: raw umber, maize, lemon yellow, blue gray, violet blue, orange red, orange yellow and green blue. This was the first time Crayola retired colors from active duty, and it was not without some protest. RUMPS, the Raw Umber and Maize Preservation Society, was formed in protest.

In honor of Crayola's 100th anniversary, people around the country were asked to nominate names for colors to represent their state. In 2004, colors such as "tater tan" (for Idaho), "Alamo a la mode" blue (for Texas) and "Bee-Utah-ful" sunglow took up a year's residence in the box.

For this 50th anniversary celebration, another makeover has occurred. Children around the country were asked to pick color preferences, and eight colors were given new names, such as "super happy" and "best friends." They, too, will get a year's run in the 64 box.

"The names reflect what kids think is important in today's world," explains Gabrielle. "They reflect emotions and feelings as much as colors."

But, she says, that demonstrates the role that color play in our lives. "Kids process their world by using the arts. As little kids scribble, they learn the impact of cause and effect. They see immediately how actions have results. They get the wow of discovery."

Coloring develops both fine and gross motor skills, she says. "It has a huge impact on developing confidence. And it stimulates their imagination." How many times, she asks, has a child brought you a piece of paper with what looks like random marks? "They can tell you what it is, tell you a whole story about it." It might be a day at the park or a favorite pet or fairies and monsters.

It's never too early to start coloring, says Gabrielle. For that reason, last year Crayola introduced a line of "Beginnings," which includes egg-shaped markers that fit toddler hands at 12 and 18 months, and boxes of triangular crayons and markers designed for 2-year-olds. (By the way, they are all washable.)

But you're never too old to color, either. Parents and grandparents can have as much fun as their kids with coloring activities and can learn a lot about mixing and matching colors.

This year, Crayola has also introduced 3-D Sidewalk Chalk. "You pair it with 3-D glasses, and it takes you to a whole new place," says Gabrielle. "It looks like the artwork is floating on air." The whole family can have fun with that, she says.

In fact, family and crayons go together very well. As Tim Walsh says in his book "Timeless Toys" (Andrews McMeel), "Of course the Crayola creations are the most rewarding part. ... Those are the gifts from my kids that I cherish the most. After the hugs and kisses, I'll take the ideas, fears, thoughts and dreams all expressed on paper. Long before they can articulate themselves adequately with words, kids can speak in shades of Pacific Blue and Wild Watermelon. Mr. Binney and Mr. Smith would be pleased."

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