As a child, John Kropf knew he could always find a bucket of American Crayon coloring sticks to doodle on old newspapers, draw on dining room walls or inhale a good whiff of their waxy scent. So when, thirty-five years later, he found himself without a single crayon, he went on eBay and bought five used boxes for $18.
Kropf, now a practicing lawyer in Washington, D.C., can trace the origins of a self-described crayon snobbery to a long family history in the industry. Born in Sandusky, Ohio, Kropf’s childhood in the “color capital of the world” instilled in him an early loyalty to American Crayons.
In his newly published book, “The Color Capital of the World: Growing Up with the Legacy of a Crayon Company,” Kropf describes the rise and fall of American Crayon, one of the earliest crayon companies in the United States.
Kropf first got the idea for his book after returning to Sandusky nearly thirty-five years after first moving to Washington, D.C. He had come home after the consecutive losses of both his parents and his sister. Finding himself back in the heart of both his childhood home and the city’s once-thriving crayon industry, he visited the old Sandusky crayon factory, now stripped of its machinery and about to be demolished.
“It really pulled at my heartstrings to think of this factory that had been so important to the community and the city and my family for decades and decades just sitting there, like an old friend falling apart,” Kropf said. “All of those things coming to an end made me feel like I had to do something to tell its history before it’s all gone.”
The story of American Crayon began in 1890 with three branches of Kropf’s family: the Whitworths, the Curtises and the Cowderys. Experiments in the Curtis kitchen, encouraged by the Cowderys and funded by the Whitworths, eventually led to the creation of the American Crayon Company. The factory, described in Kropf’s book as a “brick fortress,” was built by Kropf’s great-grandparents. It was there, along the Norfolk Southern Railroad line, that the three families began production on their newly developed crayon recipe.
American Crayon was born in an era of the Wright brothers and the automobile. Sandusky joined other cities in the region in embracing the industrial spirit, commissioning the first train engine west of the Alleghenies. In this period, the skies were home to early airplane tests, the ground crisscrossed with electric railroad lines, and garages filled with startup automobile companies. While not all ventures were successful, the rise of this kind of self-starting innovation has left a lasting impact on the region.
Marcellus Cowdery, whom Kropf calls the “family leader,” embodied this enterprising spirit. The first superintendent of Sandusky schools, he was the one who initially identified the need for a new kind of chalk. Cowdery’s emphasis on penmanship in his students was made more difficult because of the impracticality of the kinds of chalk they had at their disposal.
We might see crayons today as little more than children’s toys, but before the invention of the colorful, waxy sticks we know today, classrooms in the late 1800s had only crumbly chalk that screeched against blackboards.
Cowdery turned to his brother-in-law, William Curtis, in an attempt to come up with a better alternative. After trips to the local quarry, concoctions in the family kitchen and countless batches of mixtures poured into molds and baked in the oven, the two eventually landed on a recipe that was significantly smoother than before. A few years later, they came across another inventor from Massachusetts who was incorporating wax into his mixtures, and brought him into the company. Soon after, the first crayons were born.
American Crayon continued to expand from its first chalk alternative and created easy-to-use watercolors for kids, tempera paints for lithography and even a magazine publication called Everyday Art. Its products were bought by school teachers and railroad companies alike. American Crayons employed some five hundred people in its factories and offices around the country, but the heart of the company remained in Sandusky: at its peak, the Sandusky factory topped every other crayon company in its yearly production rate.
Yet despite its success, the company ultimately wasn’t immune to the build, boom and bust narrative of the Rust Belt. Like many other Midwestern industrial giants, American Crayons suffered a decline post-World War II. Several businesses folded and American Crayon was eventually acquired by Dixon Crucible. The company saw its final days following the 1990 NAFTA act, when labor was outsourced to Mexico, where it was cheaper. Less than a year later, its century-long run was over.
Although Kropf’s return home to Sandusky brought back echoes of the family company’s demise, it also showed him that the impact of American Crayon was still very much alive. Kropf began posting about the company on social media, and described how each time he did so, he received an outpouring of affection and love for the company.
“People would say, ‘My grandmother worked there, my father worked there,’ — half their families worked there, and they worked there for twenty, thirty, forty years,” Kropf said. “It really was a story that resonated and connected with the community.”
After returning back home and feeling compelled to tell the history of American Crayon decades later, Kropf realized that this was bigger than himself. Between the hundreds of American Crayon employees and all the kids who, like Kropf, had grown up with crayons “in their blood,” the effects that the company had were still rippling through the next generation.
“The more I worked on this book, and the more I talked to people, the more I realized this wasn’t my story,” Kropf said. “I hope to honor everybody who worked in this company, because there was such pride and there was such affection for it.”