(A Legacy) Waxing and Waning : John Kropf’s Account of American Crayon

“Crayons bring out the kid in you.” 

That is one of many lessons author John Kropf shares with community members at the Sandusky Library during a book signing in late 2022. In “Color Capital of the World: Growing Up With the Legacy of a Crayon Company,” the Sandusky native Kropf details his family connection that binds him with the story of American Crayon. 

Once located along the railyard at 1706 Hayes Ave., the company created an educational legacy for art by means of chalk, crayon and watercolor sets for the world until its closing in 2002.

Sandusky-manufactured chalk crayons, then packaged in Hinde-Dauch boxes, were sent along railroads for use across the United States. (Photo/Courtesy of John Kropf)Opening the book, three families are credited to the creation, manufacture and marketing of American Crayon products. Kropf retells at length the involvement of his family—the Whitworths—and two others: the Curtis and Cowdery clans.

Bonded by a marriage of siblings, Marcellus Cowdery, first superintendent of Sandusky City Schools, and William D. Curtis, farmhand and Civil War veteran from the Grand Army, were the innovator and inventor pair who developed the Western School Supply company’s first product: chalk.

Cooked up on a home stovetop, the kitchen-made recipe was “crude, but economical.” While chalk of the 18th century was traditionally sourced from the cliffs of Dover, England, W.D. Curtis’ refined recipe was a comparably more useful, less costly—and most crucially, less scratchy—alternative to standard scribbles.

The product was a first for railroads, carpenters and tailors’ use, but had not yet entered the mainstream market for public schools. That changed in 1890, when Kropf’s great-grandfather—venture capitalist John Whitworth—joined the operation, financing the Curtis-Cowdery crayon innovations as American Crayon’s treasurer and general manager.

Back in the kitchen, Curtis and Cowdery innovated new products and expanded the Western School Supply Company to include American Crayon products, selling both chalk and wax. An emphasis at American Crayon is made on the difference between wax and chalk: the company’s definition for crayon changed alongside American art trends. Initially, the American Crayon Company’s first line of products was used for industrial purposes. Construction companies employed chalk for contractors’ use on railroad points, carpenters’ chalk for marking building materials, and tailors’ chalk for fabrics. When chalk crayons caught on with manufacturers, the marketing department at ACC built a Kromacolor market that aided American childrens’ everyday creativity.

Early on in the Curtis-Cowdery-led company’s story, chalk and crayon products developed in tandem forced a number of acquisitions by American Crayon, like the Parmentes, Tiffin, and Franklin Crayon Companies, as well as Massachusetts-owned Prang Educational Co. In 1957, the newly reinforced American Crayon joined the Joseph Dixon Crucible company of New Jersey, and the families Whitworth, Cowdery and Curtis futures seemed to be stable.

At the peak of American Crayon, Prang watercolors and Crayola crafts supplied youth with the inspiration to create pictures at home, or students with materials for works at the college classroom.

Visual aids to Color Capital of the World include
Schoolchildren found utility in working parents’ crayon kits, predating Crayola. (Photo/Courtesy of John Kropf)the packaging at American Crayon that “often outlasted the products themselves:” American Crayon’s maple boxes were so durable that Henry Ford’s manufacturing line on Water Street used them for car battery storage.

The American Crayon product line featured penny packs the size of a child’s palm, “Old Faithful” pencil tins, and an original Prang watercolor set. Marketing for the Prang brand was a success from the company’s acquisition in 1915. Prang 8 Watercolors is emblazoned on steel, which is not a common sight for most, since people today have  grown up with plastic compartments, not metal tins. Competition between art companies is to blame for this cheaper plastic alternative.

Under American Crayon’s second generation owners—Kropf’s grandparents—the factory was forced to downsize some of its brand operations. When pastels fell out of favor with families, American Crayon focused its facilities on wax crayon creation, and when penny-size sets of childrens’ crayons were no longer profitable, the factory manufactured chalk in bulk.

By 1957, Dixon-Ticonderoga, creator of the classic Yellow No. 2 pencil, had negotiated a complete purchase of the Sandusky company’s facilities, Tempera art brand along with other assets. Under new ownership, American Crayon gained a greater supply of graphite lead, and the Dixon product line was granted school system connections through American Crayon’s national customers: the school system. Just like Sandusky City Schools, districts around the country maintained their loyalty to the American Crayon brand, even under the Dixon-Ticonderoga name.

Crayon companies, just like bubblegum companies, would feature Major League Baseball players, began featuring cartoon characters on different boxes. (Photo/Courtesy of John Kropf)As American Crayon declined, so did Sandusky’s renown as Lake Erie’s vacationland. In 1993, American Crayon was shut down and left vacant, followed by Hinde and Dauch Paper Co. While Hinde and Dauch was repurposed to Chesapeake Lofts, the American Crayon building remained vacant. In the second half of his story, Kropf compares the factory closures to “miniature versions of what our big siblings of Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit were undergoing.” With a second exodus, staples of the bustling lakeside settlement began to disappear, including the Ohio Theater. However, not all was lost on the Sandusky waterfront.

While Kropf might describe the poetic past of American Crayon as “a worn palette of nubs / rolling around / in a busted box,” he holds hope yet for the site’s future. Today, talk of redeveloping the site for an art-inspired splash pad, recreation center, and/or tennis courts would bring historical value back to the property. In honoring the legacy of American Crayon, Kropf also is seeking a sponsor for an Ohio Historical Marker at Hayes Avenue. These projects, he thinks, will honor the achievements of the cultural constructions that crayons create and pull Sandusky residents into American Crayon’s legacy.

In closing his story, Kropf remarks: “One thing I learned in the search for the spark that created the Color Capital days is that there is no permanence. Build. Boom. Bust. And now transformation to something new.”

John Kropf is the author of “Color Capital of the World: Growing Up With the Legacy of a Crayon Company.” He is from Sandusky and was raised in Erie County, Ohio. Kropf’s story, “Color Capital,” can be ordered online at University of Akron Press with discount code crayon30 for 30% off.

The book also is available at: