Vintage Spotlight

Gurley Novelty Candles, A Thanksgiving Tradition

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Gurley Novelty Company got its start in Buffalo, New York in 1939 as a part of the candle maker Franklin Gurley's W&F Manufacturing Co. Inc. In the beginning, the Gurley line of wax figures was commissioned by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company as a scheme to reuse the extra paraffin that was a by-product of the oil refinery process. Gurley released their first products under the name Tavern. This original line of products consisted of wax lips and teeth, as well as a small selection of candle figures with holiday themes, like ghosts, pilgrims, and Santa Claus. By the end of the 1940s, the company was producing novelty candles almost exclusively and in 1949 Franklin Gurley bought the rights to the Tavern brand and renamed it Gurley Novelty Co.

Under the new name Gurley Novelty Co., the company continued to make the small wax figures that they had become known for. The design of the majority of their wax figures/candles around specific holiday themes, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Though each candle had a wick, they were not truly intended to be used as practical candles. Most figures were purchased and used as decorative figurines for holiday display and decoration. The smaller candles were sold individually while the sets and larger candles were sold in sealed paper boxes. Starting in the 1960s two and three candle sets, as well as the larger candles, were generally sold shrink-wrapped in cellophane with a round paper Gurley label on the bottom.

Thanksgiving Tradition

Gurley Novelty Co. produced some of the most popular and resplendent Thanksgiving table decorations of the 1940s and 1950s including a wide selection marketed specifically for the Thanksgiving holiday. The Thanksgiving line included individual turkeys in various shades of color, Pilgrims, Indians, and related holiday accessories. The Pilgrims and Indians figures came in several sizes and varied in color decoration and design. The male pilgrim sometimes had a Musket and sometimes did not.

Individual candles had an identifying cardboard tag on the base offered the price, the company name, and brief warning on the use. The usage warning evolved through the years, it typically cautioned that the burning of the candle could deform the figures and cause a mess. Thankfully for collectors today, most people chose not to use them as candles but simply as tabletop decorations. These candles were stocked and sold in wide numbers across the U.S. throughout the 1940s through the 1960s in Woolworth's and other dime store locations.

Today Gurley brand candles can be relatively easy to find flea markets; antique dealers and online but condition and color are an important factor in determining condition. Regarding condition, the male and female Native American Indian figures are less commonly found due to their fragile headdress components that are prone to break off.