A 1903 petroleum product named for the French word for chalk, craie, and English adjective oily, oleaginous.
Petroleum has provided products worldwide, with some hiding in plain sight. For Pennsylvania’s Benny & Smith Company, common oilfield paraffin changed the company’s future by coloring children’s imaginations. Before inventing Crayola crayons, the partners patented a “dustless chalk” popular with teachers, a red oxide for paints, and Staonal — “stay-on-all” — the blackest of all markers.
In 1881, three decades after America’s first oil well at Titusville, Pennsylvania, Crayola crayons began with a petroleum refining patent by Edwin Binney to make carbon black, an intensely black pigment.
Binney and his partner C. Harold Smith had launched their company selling inks, black polishes, and a chalk for schoolroom blackboards. Pennsylvania’s booming oilfields would prove key to their success, beginning with using natural gas in a patented “Apparatus for the Manufacture of Carbon Black.”
Binney & Smith Company later would add oilfield paraffin — the bane of oil producers since it clogged wells — and mix in colors to create a petroleum product named Crayola®.
Manufacturing Carbon Black
On May 28, 1891, Binney received a patent for the company’s method to efficiently produce a fine, soot-like substance more intensely black than any other pigment in use at the time.
“The objects of my invention are to manufacture lamp-black from oil in an improved and economical manner, whereby waste of the product and unnecessary expenditure of labor are avoided,” Binney noted in his patent application.
His patent (No. 453,140) proclaimed a process to “manufacture carbon-black from gas in such a manner as to obtain improved quality of black which shall have the soft flaky texture of lamp-black made in ordinary ways.”
The young U.S. petroleum industry, rapidly expanding its refineries to fuel kerosene for lamps, supplied Binney & Smith Company the oil and natural gas feedstock for the company’s carbon black. The heat and smoke resulting from the burning gas was directed to cool in revolving metal drums.
The company refining process produced a fine, soot-like substance of incredible blackness — a better pigment than any other then used. Binney & Smith’s carbon black received an award at the 1900 Paris Exposition, a world’s fair of the century’s achievements.
It was not long before the inventors mixed their carbon black product with oilfield paraffin and other waxes to introduce a paper-wrapped black crayon marker for crates and barrels. The marker was promoted as being able to “stay on all” and accordingly named “Staonal.”
Staonal became a highly successful company product, but was too laden with carbon black to be safe for use by children. Earlier, the company had found success manufacturing “dustless chalk” for schoolrooms and a red iron oxide for a red paint farmers used on barns.
Although they longed for color, students in Alice Stead Binney’s classroom had to settle for dustless chalk. In fact, An-Du-Septic dustless chalk was so popular among turn-of-the-century teachers that it won a Gold Medal at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
Teachers like Alice loved the tidy new product, but their choices were limited. Pencils of the day were primitive, with square “leads” made from a variety of clays, slates, and graphite. Color writing implements were the toxic and expensive imports of artists, best kept away from schoolchildren.
Alice’s husband Edwin, and his cousin, C. Harold Smith, created An-Du-Septic chalk as a consequence of expanding their pigment business into the sideline production of slate pencils for schools.
In Easton, Pennsylvania, the Binney & Smith Company, formerly the Peekskill Chemical Works, was best known for its production of red iron oxide and carbon black for paints, inks, and stove and shoe polishes. That would change.
Slate pencils and the very successful An-Du-Septic dustless chalk nonetheless put Binney & Smith salesmen into America’s classrooms. The company’s sales force listened to teachers and learned there would be a ready market for inexpensive, non-toxic, brightly colored crayons.
“Crayola” from Oilfield Paraffin
By 1903, Binney & Smith was ready to launch a new product that would change childhood forever. Alice Binney provided the historic name by combining the French word for chalk, craie, with an English adjective meaning oily, oleaginous, creating Crayola®.
Manufacturing was based on small batches of carefully measured and hand-mixed pigments, paraffin, talc and other waxes. Paper labels were individually rolled by hand and pasted onto each crayon.
The finished products were hand packed into individual boxes and shipped in wooden crates. Sixteen Crayola crayons sold for 10 cents; eight for 5 cents: red, yellow, orange, green, blue, violet, black, and brown. Crayola was an instant hit.
The company’s proprietary formulas remain a closely guarded secret as demand for its crayons has continued to grow around the world. Production capacity reportedly is more than four million crayons every day, thanks to oilfield paraffin from distant petroleum refineries delivered to Crayola’s Easton factory in railroad tank cars.
In January 2007, Binney & Smith became Crayola LLC in recognition of the company’s number one brand. The company is now known as Crayola. Crayola has grown to become a $500 million dollar a year business — a successful union of the petroleum industry to the colorful world of children’s imaginations.
“This organizational and name change showcases the company’s Crayola brand, sold by Binney & Smith since 1903,” explained the company, which also opened a museum in Easton. Crayola is sold in more than 80 countries, “and represents innovation, fun, kids and quality.”
As paraffin continued to find its way into more products (see The Crude History of Mabel’s Eyelashes), in 1912, Binney & Smith’s carbon black was used for the first time to make black tires.
Carbon Black Hits the Road
Until carbon black was added to improve durability, auto tires were white. Then in 1839, bankrupt Philadelphia hardware merchant and erstwhile inventor Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped rubber and sulfur on a hot stove top. The rubber charred like leather yet remained elastic, a discovery that led to “vulcanization.”
With the new process, natural rubber could be transformed into an industrial product with innumerable uses. Goodyear’s famous lawyer, Daniel Webster, praised his client’s invention. “It introduces quite a new material into the manufacture of the arts, that material being nothing less than elastic metal,” Webster proclaimed.
Automobile tires were the ideal application for this new product. Between 1895 and 1905, more than 77,000 new automobiles were registered in the United Stated (See Cantankerous Combustion — First U.S. Auto Show).
The nation’s maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph, and automobile tires were white. Natural rubber pigments and zinc oxide used in the manufacturing process gave tires their color.
In 1910, the B.F. Goodrich Company found that adding carbon black to the vulcanizing process dramatically improved strength and durability. The material came from controlled combustion of both oil and natural gas. Its use in tires created an immense market – initially consuming one pound of carbon black for each two pounds of rubber.
As the automobile industry grew, so did demand for tires and for carbon black. By 1931, Texas was producing more than 200 million pounds of carbon black annually from just 31 plants – 75 percent of America’s total.
Today, most of America’s carbon black is still produced in Texas and Louisiana. Demand remains closely associated with automobile tires. Cabot Corporation, founded in Pennsylvania in 1882, is the largest U.S. producer of intensely black material. In 2017, the company reported having 44 manufacturing plants in 21 countries and revenues of more than $2.7 billion.
Paraffin crayons and carbon black are among many petroleum products.
Recommended Reading: – Crayola Creators: Edward Binney and C. Harold Smith, Toy Trailblazers (2016); Carbon Black, Its Manufacture, Properties, and Uses (2018); The B.F. Goodrich Story Of Creative Enterprise 1870-1952 (2010). Your Amazon purchases benefit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an annual AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact email@example.com. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “’Carbon Black & Oilfield Crayons.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/oilfield-paraffin. Last Updated: May 16, 2023. Original Published Date: September 1, 2007.