Not that anybody was frightened or outraged to learn that Binney & Smith, the maker of Crayola crayons, is replacing eight colors, but in the manner of sleeping dogs lifting their heads at the first sound of thunder, we paid attention.
TV news was all over this story, and USA Today put it on the front page. No wonder. Messing with Crayola crayons is like messing with the rainbow or the spectrum, with the prism of the American psyche.
The facts: Binney & Smith is replacing blue gray, green blue, violet blue, orange red, orange yellow, lemon yellow, maize and raw umber, which will go into the Crayola Crayon Hall of Fame in Easton, Pa., according to company spokeswoman Lina Striglia. In fact, they will be the only things in the Hall of Fame.
They will be replaced by fuchsia, vivid tangerine, jungle green, cerulean, dandelion, teal blue, wild strawberry and royal purple. Only the first four will go into the box of 24, five in the box of 32, six in the box of 48 and all of them in the box of 64 -- the one with the sharpener -- and, of course, in the box of 72, which includes the fluorescents and pastels, though not the legendary flesh, which was renamed peach in 1962 when the company recognized that flesh comes in different colors.
Not all change is bad.
The new ones sound better, to judge from the names. Besides, even if they weren't, it's not as if the company were replacing the original eight crayons introduced in 1903, ones you can still buy today in boxes that say "different, brilliant colors": red, blue, green, yellow, orange, brown, violet and black, double-wrapped in that soft, grippable paper and smelling of rainy days and car trips, a smell of paraffin so memorable it's one of the 20 most recognizable smells among American adults, according to Binney & Smith (the first two being peanut butter and coffee), though it's strange that something that smells as distinct as a crayon has almost no taste, just the feel of those waxy crumbs in your mouth.
We don't need lots of the colors in the bigger crayon boxes -- think of what a disappointment silver and gold always were. They looked great, you figured you could do great ray guns and crowns with them, and then they just came out shiny gray and brown, really. Though the company says that the "metallics," as it calls them, are often mentioned by adults as their childhood favorites.
We have all crayoned.
Think of this the next time you see some pin-striped executive heavy cruiser gliding down the sidewalk toward you in all his dignity -- picture him working away at a spaceship/monster shootout. Know that he felt bad just as you did when he broke one and said to himself he shouldn't have pressed so hard, and tried to pretend it hadn't happened. Finally he had to tear the paper in half and make it two short crayons. These always fell to the bottom of the box when he put them back, which made the other ones stick up too high and so those perfect rows of crayons that were lined up in the fresh box like organ pipes or a choir were ruined.
Ah, the pristinity, the virginity, the infinity offered by a brand-new box of crayons -- and then you'd look around the floor of your room at the end of an afternoon of coloring and see the squalid mess of paper and crayons and the stuff your kid brother had scribbled on the wall just as you heard your mother say the three sentences that awoke you from so many reveries:
Anyway, after the shock of hearing about the new colors -- the first since the fluorescents (hot magenta, ultra green, ultra orange, ultra red, ultra blue, ultra yellow, chartreuse and ultra pink) of 1972 -- they sound okay. They come out of interviews with 150 kids. The discarded colors are not apt to be missed -- they tended to be the ones you used when you ran out of another color, except they never quite matched unless you colored the whole thing over.
"Violet purple -- who cares?" says Peter Dunne, 46, a corporate communications manager who lives in North Haledon, N.J.
He learned how to color in his cousins' apartment in Brooklyn. "They had a shoe box full of crayon pieces, two girls. Girls color better than boys. It was there that I learned how to outline areas in the same color. As you get older you learn to color in the same direction, instead of like an asterisk. If you had to fill in big areas it was best to color in circles that overlapped. If you colored until there were layers built up, the crayon clicked when you took it off the paper. When you grow up, you can use oil pastels -- they're more like lipstick. The color saturation is great but you don't have the edge control. Grease pencils are fun. When you were a kid, remember how you'd always pull that string back one dot too far? I still like to color. If it rains at the beach and you've already bought sandals you go to the Ben Franklin and get crayons and a coloring book, except they call them activity books now. I leave them behind at the house, and the next tenants come in and their kids say, 'Wow, a major leaguer was here.' "
Binney & Smith makes 2 billion crayons a year. They begin life when you open the box and see that gorgeous chord of color in 72-part harmony (or that perfect octet of the original eight). They end up in dusty cacophony under car seats, behind bookcases, under porches. They melt on sidewalks and windowsills, and they are never the same again.
Your mother carried them in her purse, and after you got tired of looking at the tropical fish at the dentist's office, she'd take them out with a coloring book and say: "Color me a picture."
You'd come back and show it to her.
"I went outside the lines," you'd say.
"That's the best part," she'd say. You still thought it looked stupid.
Your parents told you not to sharpen them in the pencil sharpener, they would ruin it, and you did, and they ruined it.
You could take a fistful of them and draw a whole bunch of colors all at once, and it would look like when the fighters go over at the air show and let out the different-colored streams of smoke.
When they got small enough, you peeled the paper off and pushed them sideways across the page, but without the label you couldn't be sure what color they were anymore.
"If you take off the paper you'll be unhappy when you use purple for black," says Nicholas Isaac DeWolf Allen, 9, of Takoma Park.
These things will not change.
Why doesn't Binney & Smith give us extra red and black ones instead of vivid tangerine? Red and black are the most popular. You always run out of them. They'll still be slipping under back seats when vivid tangerine has gone to the Hall of Fame.