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Revisiting Mister Rogers’ Factory Tours Shows the World for What It Is: Complicated.

The factory tours on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood show the magic of hard work and how it can make order of chaos. If only that were still the case.

Crayola

If you were to rank the most blissed-out segment in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you would have a monumental task ahead of you. Each show is 28 minutes of zen. But easily making it into the top five recurring warm-bath segments are the factory tours. Watching red balls take shape, pretzel dough go into the oven, the Crayola factory come to life, and a cloud of cotton getting brushed into a towel with Fred Rogers’ calm, interested voiceover makes for good television, sure, but it does so much more. These segments show the magic of work — that an object is the sum of its parts plus labor, and this process is a sight to behold. Rogers wanted to show kids that our chaotic world is an orderly place with meaning, if we just take time to look below the surface. 

As an adult looking back at these segments, it’s clear to me the world just isn’t that simple anymore. Sure, the adult viewpoint complicates things (“Who’s their manager?”; “I wonder what overtime pay is like?”), but so does the world economy. Companies don’t just make a single thing anymore. For better and worse, the world just doesn’t work like that.

There’s perhaps no better example of this than in Mister Rogers’ visit to the Crayola factory. The episode, which ran on June 1, 1981, sent the team packing to Easton, Pennsylvania, to explore one of the most familiar objects for kids: the crayon. The segment begins, as most factory segments do, with Mister Rogers approaching the picture frame and a slow zoom taking us into the scene, which happened to be of a great big tanker train. From there, colorful visual flow and fade in and out as in a fever dream. This vision is mostly beside the point. The heart of the experience comes through in Rogers’ methodical language, as if he is putting the crayons together with his words: 

“The train is full of hot wax. And from the tank it’s poured into a kind of big kettle with a kind of powder that makes the wax hard. After that, they put in the pigment, which is like colored flour. 

This pigment is yellow, so it’s used to make yellow crayons.

Now all of that hot wax and hardener and pigment is mixed together into a kind of pouring bucket… into a mold for lots of crayons. Each little hole will be filled with the colored wax.

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See how they pour that in? 

That colored wax is going into all those holes. And a little later, each one of those holes will show a crayon coming up. People wait for about five minutes for the yellow wax to get hard. Then they scrape of the top which they’ll melt and use again

Now watch the crayons come into the crayon collectors. 

There they are. 

Look at all those yellow crayons. Handfuls of yellow crayons. It’s like a ferris wheel, isn’t it? These crayons get lots of rides.

To make up big boxes of crayons, many little boxes are put together in one big box. Then they’re all put into a big shipping box. And then people take those boxes to the stores where other people come to buy them.”

The segment, to this kid at least, was mind-blowing. It initially complicated the relationship with a familiar object, dissecting it into its essential and unfamiliar parts, before slowly bringing it back in a solid, familiar form. Out of a steaming train and molten swirling yellow liquids and people moving boxes and cylinders of wax comes crayons. This is how crayons are made. This is what work looks like. The world makes sense. 

On its surface, it seems like not much has changed. The crayon-making process at Crayola is, wonderfully and surprisingly, not all that different. There’s a bit more automation. There are fewer people. But the modern-day crayon-making process (as you can see here in a 2014 video from Wired) is pretty damn similar to the one Mister Rogers showed us. It’s still visual gold. It’s hard labor. It’s how things are made.

But of course, things have changed. Some 37 years later, the world is a lot more complicated and so is this crayon factory. Crayola is still be based in Easton, Pennsylvania, but its supply chain is international, its products more complex and wide-ranging than crayons, and its core value all the muddier. The quiet essence of the yellow crayon and the crayon factory producing crayons, and the factory worker making crayons is lost. 

There’s this plot twist in The Good Place, an excellent show about how to live a moral life in modern times, where, spoiler alert, the main character realizes that everyone goes to the bad place because the world is too complicated for good to exist. A good act, like ordering flowers for grandma, they propose, is complicated by the fact that those flowers have high CO2 emissions, the phone used to order them was built in a sweatshop, and the shipping company used to keep costs down is hellbent on union-busting. 

Likewise, the making of yellows crayons — handfuls of yellow crayons — is complicated by modern economic forces. You can look deep into the supply chain that churns out familiar objects, but unlike in Rogers’ time, there’s no coming back to the Platonic ideal. What does Crayola manufacture? Crayons. Also, crafts, this weird springy clay stuff, animals that ooze, pricey museum-like experiences, cheap screen-based experience, slightly horrifying 5-foot-tall talking crayons, and some very colorful marketing. In other words, it’s complicated. 

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Since Mister Rogers’ heyday, American goods have increasingly come from far away lands and the way they’re made in those places is simply not transparent. When you see video from, say, FoxCon, the largest manufacturer of electronics in China, it’s usually exposing human rights violations, not to showing work being done. Crayons, likewise have not gone untainted. While Pennsylvania continues to be the epicenter of crayon manufacturing in the U.S. — with 13.5 million crayons made there per day — there have been competitors from factories whose standards are not as high. A massive scandal 25 years ago, which lead to a recall of Chinese crayons that were found to have lead in them. This scandal alone slowed the tide of crayons in the American market, never sending imported crayons past the three to five-percent mark in America. 

Crayola is dominant in crayon-making, but it is not resting on its laurels. Like most modern companies, it has expansive intellectual property. This, logically both helps the bottom line and helps a company reach more people. In the case of Crayola, the do-it-yourself craft ethos shines through in most of its products (we’ll give the middling apps a pass) and the toys and crayons offer great entertainment for kids. But the wide variety of offerings also makes companies much more complicated to understand. 

If you look at the latest products from Crayola this year, you will find a whole lot of things that don’t remotely resemble crayons. New products include: Build A Beast Dragonfly Craft Kit made of Model Magic (manufactured in China), Sprinkle Art Uni-Creatures Activity Kit, and a 2-in-1 Color Chemistry Gift Set. These are not bad toys. In fact, the Build-a-Beast line are filled with great toys that require creativity, imagination, and hands-on skills. The latest from that line even made Fatherly’s hand-picked list of the 50 Best Toys of 2019.

The point being, a Mister Rogers factory tour would look very different today. Crayola is no longer the maker of a single, well-understood product in one place that you can break down into wax, dye, and packaging. Mister Rogers would need to enter a boardroom, talk to product designers, marketers, and audience analysts to get the full picture. He’d be required to speak to why the company made the product rather than simply what parts went into the thing.  

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Perhaps most confusing to kids and furthest from the Mister Rogers’ ethos, Crayola has put a lot of money into selling its factory as a destination for experiences. The Crayola Experience, a DIY museum of sorts that launched 23 years ago in Easton and has expanded to Arizona, Minnesota, Florida, and Texas, teems with smiling crayon characters on interactive screens and posters lining all the walls. There are rooms with screen-based games, “silly selfies,” melted crayon art, DIY crayon making (these are both admittedly very cool and very on-brand), and the mandatory pizza and soda and junk food you find in a kids’ museum cafeteria. 

It’s an interesting place and, by all means, fun for families. But it again complicates the company. This is no longer the place where crayons are made  — a point made by the fact that factory tours are not only not part of the Crayola Experience, they aren’t available to the public. From the kid’s point of view, Crayola is a place where magic happens, a place where 100-pound orange crayons drop from the sky on New Year’s Eve and melted wax spins into art. In this case, “magic” is ephemeral. As you grow older, it goes away. The magic of the Crayola Experience, unlike the magic of drawing with crayons, is lost on adults. 

The truth of the matter is that a Crayola Experience is an inculcation. The smiling 5-foot talking crayons replace the smell of wax (it’s beef fat that makes it smell like that). Interactive displays and oozing clay replaces sitting down to draw. Crayola replaces crayons. Of course Crayola puts its own name over its most iconic product. After all, there are already crayons in every restaurant and home in the country — what else is there to sell there?

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I recently showed my kids (two and eight) Mister Rogers’ crayon tour, playing the segment from my phone. I prefaced it with little more than this is how crayons were made. They were attentive and quiet, watching, I imagined, in the calm repose that Rogers’ voice instills. I turned off the phone and told my older kid she had been there (we were once members at the Crayola Experience). Blank stare. I then asked if they wanted to draw. My 8-year-old declined, no doubt feeling a little old to do some coloring. The 2-year-old, ever the follower, also declined. Then he asked for “more TV!”  But kid, I thought, Mister Rogers isn’t just TV. This is a man showing us how the world works. As it turns out, it is all a bit more complicated than that.

Admire Fred Rogers? We do too. That’s why Fatherly has released Finding Fred, a narrative podcast about the ideas that animated Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and what they mean in 2019. Listen to the show on iTunes or online to hear journalist Carvell Wallace grapple with the legacy of a kind, but complicated man.