A scent of crayons crosses time

The Education Beat

October 22, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

REMEMBER flesh?" Jean Walker asked.

"Every hour of every day, even in my sleep," I replied.

"Not that kind of flesh, silly. The flesh-colored crayons."

Of course I remembered. Flesh was a favorite color in the flap-topped Crayola box of 48, introduced in 1949, the year Ms. Walker and I, three-quarters of a continent apart and not to meet for nearly half a century, entered third grade.

Ms. Walker clutched her first crayons at Dublin Elementary School in Harford County -- she was Jean Sheppard then -- and now lives in Linthicum. "I remember peeling the paper back and how they always broke. You'd accumulate the stubs in a cigar box until you had a thousand pieces.

"Remember how you were always looking for new, exotic colors?

"Remember the smell?"

Yes! The crayon smell is the 18th most recognizable scent to Americans, according to Yale University researchers. Any American adult who sniffs a Crayola crayon is transported across time and space to old schoolrooms, old teachers, first loves.

You talk about capitalism in schools! Education Alternatives Inc. could learn some lessons from Binney & Smith, the Easton, Pa., company that produces Crayola crayons at the rate of about 2 billion a year. (Gross sales last year were $380 million.)

The company is sensitive about its share of the market -- a federal antitrust suit was settled out of court in the 1980s -- but a visit to any store selling school supplies will demonstrate how dominant Crayola is. The Crayola crayon is the most familiar product in education. An estimated 65 percent of American children between 2 and 7 pick up a crayon and color once a day. Of those, marketing experts say, at least 80 percent use Crayola crayons.

In recent years, the company has expanded its product line -- colored chalk, colored pencils, "glitter glue," washable markers, doodle pads, crayons that glow in the dark, large models for little kids known as "So Bigs." (The company also marketed a scented crayon but withdrew the line voluntarily and quietly after getting some complaints.) But the basic yellow and green box of eight in the traditional tones (red, blue, yellow, green, violet, orange, black and brown) endures.

In 1903, it cost a nickel. Now it's 89 cents. The "Big Box" of 96 colors -- 80 existing and 16 new hues -- came out in 1993. It sells for about $6.

Price and variety of colors aren't all that have changed. In 1962, Crayola dropped flesh in favor of peach. It was the dawn of the civil rights era, and the color that Jean Sheppard and I had used to fill in faces in our coloring books was not the universal color of human flesh.

But -- sign of the politically correct times -- Crayola now is out with a multicultural line comprising the several colors of skin -- peach as well as shades of brown. "It's designed to help educators help kids talk about cultural diversity," said Brad Drexler, a Binney & Smith spokesman.

To better understand the Crayola phenomenon, Education Beat convened an ad hoc panel of primary teachers at Baltimore County's Scotts Branch Elementary School. Kristin Novak, third-grade teacher; Betsie Johnson, kindergarten teacher; Carol Matz, special-education teacher; and Kristen Lentz, kindergarten teacher, gave us these insights:

* Schools buy crayons for the youngest children. Older children should purchase their own.

* Crayons, said Ms. Lentz, are useful for teaching colors and color words (although "Crayola" is written larger on a crayon than the color itself). They're also excellent "manipulatives." They can be grouped in "sets" and moved about to teach mathematical skills.

* Some parents are so obsessive that they write their kids' names in tiny print on individual crayons.

* Teachers still save the stubs and melt them down for reuse.

* Crayons, said Ms. Matz, the special education teacher, "are very soothing. A child gets a crayon in his hand, and it has an immediate calming effect."

* Though Crayola has attached sharpeners to its crayon boxes in recent years, Ms. Matz said, "I've never seen a child use a sharpener, never."

* The older the child, the keener the interest in accumulating different colors.

* Crayons break "incessantly," said Ms. Matz. "The only time you see unbroken crayons is the first week of school."

Those last two observations tell us something about the Crayola success story. Binney & Smith appears to have thrived for nearly a century on two principles as American as Chevrolet: Make a product that breaks or wears out quickly and needs constant replacement. And sell a product that ignites in consumers a burning desire for new colors.

Southeast Baltimore group works for better schools

On Oct. 14, , more than 100 parents, educators and community leaders from Southeast Baltimore came together to begin mapping an improvement plan for the 16 schools in the area.

Part of the 4-year-old Southeast Community Plan, this is Baltimore's most ambitious community-based school-improvement effort in a quarter-century.

Statistics presented at the meeting show there is much work to be done. Southeast schools have problems with poverty, high dropout rates and an unusually high number of children in special education.

But not all is educationally bleak. Middle schools appear to be healthier than others in Baltimore, Patterson High School is in the midst of renewal, and more than 100 people signed up to help make things better.

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