September 2010


The American Experience Through a Box of Crayons

It’s hard to believe it has been twenty years since the retirement of Raw Umber. Along with seven other colors, it went off to the Crayola Hall of Fame (August 7, 1990 to be exact). We remember the moment well. And even referred to its passing in the closing lines of our poem “Corporate Colors,” written just a few years after:

I’m about       thisclose
to replacing all the “corporate-logoed” pens
with a box of Crayolas—
all 64 in perfect array;
eight New Age colors
joining the fray.
Which raises the question:


Why the mourning the death of Raw Umber?
It is quite apparent
the world wants Fuchsia
and there will be no turning back.


The world apparently also wanted Cerulean, Vivid Tangerine, Jungle Green, Dandelion, Teal Blue, Royal Purple and Wild Strawberry.


And so we are left with a commemorative box of rejects for posterity. In an age of planned obsolescence, even deciding what is to be “collectable” or nostalgic, is predetermined and marketed.

Binney & Smith, the company that makes Crayola, goes as far back as 1885. But that first box of crayons for mass usage— containing eight basic colors— wasn’t introduced until 1903. According to Wikipedia:

“The Crayola name, coined by Edwin Binney’s wife Alice, comes from craie the French word for chalk, and ola, from oleaginous” (resembling or having the properties of oil).


Another reason to hate the French.


We wonder if even way back then, kids were being admonished to “stay within the lines,” when au contraire, going “outside the lines” and “thinking outside the box” is so embedded in the American DNA. Anyway, it wouldn’t be until 1958, when that first mega box of 64 crayons— with a built-in sharpener!— would be introduced; its first appearance being on the Captain Kangaroo Show.

Suddenly, all things were possible. Those school projects on white construction paper, (with glued on cotton for clouds?) could rise to heights heretofore unimagined. Yes, we remember those days well, if you will forgive us for “waxing” nostalgic on this “point.”


Yet this cornucopia of hues, would prove in time to cause some controversy. For as un-politically correct as you could possibly imagine, the box contained a color called “Flesh.” As in… “Caucasian.” Though fairly soon after in 1962, partially in response to new sensitivities brought about by the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, the company changed the name to “Peach.” Ironically, it had never dawned on a company in the color business, that flesh indeed comes in many colors.


Even up until the 90’s some controversy persisted, as “Indian Red” was changed to “Chestnut.” Apparently school children were wrongly perceiving it to be the skin color of Native Americans. We wonder where they got that idea? (Washington Redskins anybody?) Although in reality, the name of the color was inspired by a pigment used in paint oils produced in India.


Speaking of Native Americans, this exquisite portrait of Sitting Bull was done entirely with Crayolas by a guy named Don Marco. For the past 35 years he has used them as his only medium.


Yet even he misses it. The “it”?


INTERVIEWER: “What have you done with respect to the some of the colors that Crayola has                                officially retired, such as the 8 in 1993 and 4 in 2003?”

DON MARCO: “Some of the colors I was able to get along very well without. But there was one                              in particular I really miss - and that one is ‘Raw Umber.’ “

Meanwhile, back at the box, as if to overcompensate for any past perceived racial insensitivities, Binney & Smith introduced a Multicultural pack, of which we are in proud possession.

To quote the backside:

This Multicultural assortment contains 16 different skin, hair and eye colors for coloring people around the world.

Oh yes, and of course, the crayons are “Certified Non-Toxic.” Though we have always found the scent of Crayolas to be quite intoxicating, if you will. Apparently, we are not alone. Again according to Wikipedia:

A Yale University study found that the smell of Crayola crayons is one of the most recognizable scents for adults, ranking out cheese and bleach which placed at 19 and 20.

We were heartened to learn of the valuable contributions an Ivy League school is making towards the betterment of America. No other country can make a crayon whose scent can hold a candle to ours. And we’ve got the numbers to prove it!


Want more?


Reflecting our new culture of empowerment and 15 minute fame cycles— as evidenced by reality shows, wherein any Joe-the-Plumber has a say in who stays or leaves the island—Crayola marked its 100th anniversary in 2003, by asking consumers to name new colors. And conversely, voting others out of the box. Here’s how that went:


Inch Worm Blizzard Blue
Jazzberry Jam Magic Mint
Mango Tango Mulberry
Wild Blue Yonder Teal Blue


And finally, In keeping with today’s business mantra of “Building the Brand” — with all its attendant businessspeakCrayola is very much in step. According to its licensing management company:

…to help extend the unique, vibrant, and fun aspects of the brand into the home, personal care and food categories. Nancy Bailey & Associates, Inc. has licensed 24 manufacturers to develop innovative licensed products leveraging Crayola’s brand equity of color, creativity and imagination.”

In short, the evolution of Crayola as a product and a brand, has tended to mirror the changing sociology of America in the past century. And dare we say, it has been a change marked increasingly by fragmentation.

The American experience has come to mean different things to different people. There seem to be far fewer things that we all share or have in common. Sad we think, but perhaps inevitable. Yet who has not felt the joy, if even through the extended hand of a beloved child, in taking a Crayola crayon to a sheet of paper? And in so doing, as if to announce to the world: “Look at me. I’m here! I’ve got something to express.”


Frost at the Wheel

Photo by Ron Vazzano © 2010


Happy 90th Birthday to Ma and to the 19th Amendment!

Our mother, who art in Jersey, turns 90 years of age this month. We are blessed to not only still have her, but have her in good health and still acting like a mother. To which the following exchanges will attest. And bear with us if you’ve heard them; we speak of them often.

This first one took place a couple of years ago when we stayed at her house and got in at 2:30 AM one morning.

MA: You’re just getting home now?
ME: Ma…I’m 62!

This next one occurs almost every time we head out the door from her house, to grab a bus to “the city.” (i.e. New York).

MA: Be careful.
ME: Ma…I’m on Social Security.

Although, regarding the latter, she may have a point. “ME” may be too old to go into the city by himself now.


On a more universal note, it strikes us as we plan a big bash this month in celebration of her long life, that she was born about the same time that women were given the right to vote. In this context… only 90 years ago. We are not talking ancient history here.


The 19th Amendment was ratified by the Tennessee General Assembly on August 18, 1920, which as the 36th state to ratify, gave the amendment three-quarters of the states it needed for passage. Finally!


Apparently the Founding Fathers never found it in their hearts or minds to give women the vote at the outset. Or to put it in another perspective, this ratification came a full fifty years after, even those once considered chattel by law— male slaves— were given that right. And this only happened, as the story goes, because a 24 year old legislator named Harry Burn, changed his vote at the last minute at the behest of his elderly mother.


We imagine this exchange between Mother and Harry Burn, who we think bears a striking resemblance to Norman Bates:

MOTHER: Harry. How are you voting?
  HARRY: Well, mother, I, er…don’t think women are…er, ready to vote.
  MOTHER: Then find your own motel to run when I’m gone! Pass me that knife.
  HARRY: (Holding his ears)
    MOTHER!!! Now look what you’ve done. I’ll vote
“Yes!” “Yes!” “Yes!”
    (Whee, Whee, Whee, Whee, Whee)


And then again, “hey, not so fast.” Consider that almost a quarter of those voting in the House of Representatives— 89 out of 393—still thought women unworthy of the right to vote. In the Senate, the percentage of naysayers, was even higher. Then we have, what we will call, the “back nine.”


Astonishing as it was to us in having only recently made this discovery, these states did not ratify—that is to say… did not give formal approval to the passed 19th Amendment— until the years indicated:

• Maryland - 1941
• Virginia - 1952
• Alabama - 1953
• Florida - 1969
• South Carolina - 1969
• Georgia - 1970
• Louisiana - 1970
• North Carolina - 1971
• Mississippi - 1984

1984? Yes, 1984. It boggles the mind.


We can’t help but think of all of this now, when we consider some of the debates in our “modern day,” about human rights issues. We hear those in opposition proclaiming that “it’s never been done this way… and there must be a reason for that” or… “it isn’t the natural order of things.” Forgetting of course, that at one time, those very objections were made against a woman’s right to vote. And worse, to keep human beings enslaved.


So while Happy Birthdays are in order, a belated Thank You note to Harry Burn’s mother.


Labor Day Reprised

It has been said that a poem is never really finished, just abandoned. We suppose the same could be said for most creative art forms. How did Jackson Pollack know when he was done?

With that in mind, we issue a re-dripping of a Labor Day poem we presented here four years ago. Somewhat altered, seduced and abandoned once more … though the obvious title remains.

Labor Day

A group had gathered about the grill
to check on the steak and sizzle in progress;
a ritual steeped in praise of meat.
Even more of the usual tribe was missing.


Chalk it up to estrangement and churn.
The long drawn out marriages
that have melted like butter.
Those we’ve decided to no longer talk to.


Others who’ve upped and moved away
for reasons as old as pilgrims.
Still others now lie six feet under
if not—in the new fad—cremated.


Chalk it up to the play of seasons.
The constant hand of change. The deck
of time reshuffled, worn, discarded.
Still that one bee wearing his best yellow jacket


always seems to wind up at the bottom
of a bottle of beer by end of day.
And someone will notice as someone did
the year before, and the year before that,

and remark about how drunk that bee must be.
Small laughter in the small play on words
will follow. Then another will say:
“I can’t believe the summer is over.”


No one can remember Memorial Day.
Then an Irish toast at the wake of summer:
“To the rib eyes! And how long did they marinate, again?”
Since man first threw flesh on the fire.

                                               —Ron Vazzano



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