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How one Ohio town once claimed the title of ‘color capital of the world’

American Crayons of various colors are lined up inside a box.
John Kropf
The American Crayon Company pioneered some of the first crayons for children.

The late 19th century was a time of explosive innovation in Ohio.

The Wright brothers were tinkering with airplanes, automobile start-ups began cropping up, and a vibrant legacy was taking hold in Sandusky: the American Crayon Company became one of the most successful manufacturers of the classic school supply.

John Kropf captures the colorful history in his book “The Color Capital of the World: Growing up with a Legacy of a Crayon Company”. Kropf is a descendant of the crayon’s creators and grew up in Sandusky when the crayon factory was a vital part of northern Ohio’s industry.

The crayon’s creation

The company began in 1890 with Marcellus Cowdery, the first superintendent of Sandusky schools. He wanted to find a way to improve his classrooms’ chalk. The large chunks of raw Dover chalk that schools used at the time were noisy and impractical.

So, he turned to his brother-in-law, a local farmer who knew the soils around Sandusky. The two worked together to mix the chalk with Sandusky Bay gypsum.

“He cooked it up, and then he poured it into molds in the family oven,” Kropf said. “And out came what was the very first practical white cylindrical chalk that is used in schools.”

A large group of employees stand in front of Sandusky's American Crayon Company in an old photograph from the early 20th century.
John Kropf
The American Crayon was a top employer in Sandusky in the early 20th century.

Soon, the duo began experimenting with wax and adding colors. By 1902, the American Crayon Company came out with the very first children’s coloring crayons.

The colorful center of Sandusky

The family-operated company quickly became a pillar of the community, Kropf said. Located right in the heart of Sandusky, many of the company’s workers stayed for decades, some for even half a century.

An early advertisement from the American Crayon Company boasts the company's many colorful offerings.
John Kropf
An early advertisement from the American Crayon Company boasts the company's many colorful offerings.

“There was this strong community loyalty. And even through the depression, [American Crayon] kept on everyone,” he said.

It became the largest manufacturer of crayons and color paints in the country, and, notably, it served as the hometown brand. Kropf said he grew up with a particular snobbery around his school supplies.

“If you went to school in Sandusky and around Erie County, you didn't bring Crayolas into school. You brought the American Crayons,” Kropf said.

Although Crayola is the top brand today, it was far from the only competition that American Crayon faced. Kropf said there were around seven rival companies who tried to get into the lucrative market of art school supplies in the early 20th century.

“It was brand new. You had the introduction of kindergarten curriculums, which emphasized creativity for children and coloring and art,” Kropf said.

Fading away

But the profitable times gradually came to an end. After World War II, a larger company bought out the American Crayon Company, marking the beginning of its decline.

The factory was given its final blow in 1990, when the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) passed and all the production was moved out of the Sandusky plant and into Mexico.

“They closed the doors on the factory and it kind of died this very quiet death,” Kropf said. “It really had a great build, boom and then finally the bust period came.”

Boxed sets of crayons manufactured by The American Crayon Company.
Huntington Digital Library
Before its demise, the American Crayon Company was one of the largest manufacturers of crayons and colored paints.

It shut its doors in 2002 and the city voted to demolish the building in 2016. Now that it’s gone, Kropf worries that the company’s legacy will fade. He wants to see a historical marker put up to honor the business as an example of Ohio innovation.

“It's important that future generations remember that history of innovation and the second industrial revolution.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.