The Hometown History column is presented by the Fenton History Center and The Post-Journal. Each Friday, a distinct item from the Fenton History Center collections or archival special collections will be featured. Learn about your hometown history through parts of its past.
If one of the items featured brings back some memories or brings up a question, please contact the Fenton History Center at 664-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org to share your memory or get an answer to your question.
By Karen Livsey
Do you remember these holiday decorations? The Gurley Candle Co. of Buffalo sold these novelties throughout Western New York.
There are probably many readers who saw the above photograph and thought "I remember those" or even "I have some of those." These novelty candles began appearing in 1939 and continued into the 1970s. Many of these candles survive today because they were seldom burned. The candles came with warnings about burning them. Because of their irregular shapes the wax would drip and people were cautioned to place a plate under the candle if it was to be burned.
Beginning in 1939, Franklin Gurley, a candlemaker in Buffalo, was commissioned by Socony-Vacuum Oil Company to reuse the paraffin, a by-product of the oil refinery process. He began producing those memorable wax lips and teeth along with some small candle figures for the holidays. These candles were marketed under the Tavern label.
In 1949, Gurley bought the rights to the Tavern brand and started the Gurley Novelty Company. The production of candles increased. Selling for as little as $0.10 each, they could be found in the 5 and 10 cent stores, such as Woolworths, and even the larger stores such as Macy's.
Most of the Gurley candles came with a paper label on the bottom of the candle with the caution about burning them. There were Santas, angels, choir boys, deer, trees and more, as well as candle figures for other holidays. Most of the candles were about 3 to 3 inches tall, but some larger figures were available.
By the 1960s, two and three candle sets were offered. Soon people had forests of trees with a deer or two, large groups of choir boys, a host of angels, a neighborhood of snowmen and a Santa to complete the scene.
Christmas candles were by far the most popular, but there were Pilgrims for Thanksgiving and other figures for Halloween and Easter. These candles are now very collectible, often showing up at household sales and garage sales, as well as the online auction sites. By the 1970s, the Gurley Novelty Company was declining. If you don't already have some of these candles, don't despair. The Vermont Country Store purchased the molds and are reproducing some of the candles. No longer priced at the 10-cent level, one can order some, but not all, of the figures in sets at a much higher price.
"Dear Santa ..." the Fenton's 33rd annual holiday exhibit, opens today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. When you are finished with your Black Friday shopping or need to get the kids out of the house - stop by the Fenton History Center to begin your holiday season. And see if you can find some Gurley candles in the house.
The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County's history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.
Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events.
If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.