When Ralphie Parker and his 4th-grade classmates dejectedly hand over their Wax Fangs to Mrs. Shields in “A Christmas Story,” a generation may be reminded of what a penny used to buy at the local Woolworth’s store.
But there is far more to these paraffin playthings than a penny’s worth of fun. Paraffin, a byproduct of petroleum distillation, quickly found its way from refinery to marketplace in the form of candles, sealing waxes – and peculiar American candies.
It’s hard to recall a time when there were no Wax Lips, Wax Moustaches, or Wax Fangs for kids to smuggle into classrooms. Many grownups may remember the peculiar disintegrating flavor of Wax Lips from bygone Halloweens and birthday parties, but few know where these enduring icons of American culture actually started. The answer is in America’s oilfields.
The August 1859 birth of the U.S. oil industry brought kerosene to illuminate America, an early and popular petroleum product. “This flood of American petroleum poured in upon us by millions of gallons, and giving light at a fifth of the cost of the cheapest candle,” wrote British chandler James Wilson in 1879. Kerosene lanterns soon replaced candles for illumination and the much-reduced candle business turned from tallow to a versatile byproduct of petroleum distillation – paraffin.
After collecting samples from Pennsylvania oilfields, Robert Chesebrough invented a method for turning paraffin into a balm he called “petroleum jelly,” later “Vaseline.” Chesebrough himself consumed a spoonful of Vaseline each day and lived to be 96 years old. His product also led to a modern cosmetic giant (learn more in A Crude History of Mabel’s Eyelashes).
Meanwhile, paraffin quickly found its way from refinery to marketplace in candles, sealing waxes – and even chewing gums. Ninety percent of all candles by 1900 used paraffin as the new century brought a host of novel uses. Thomas Edison’s popular new phonographs also needed paraffin for their wax cylinders.
Crayons were introduced by the Binney & Smith Company in 1903 and were instantly successful. Alice Binney came up with the name by combining the French word for chalk, craie, with an English adjective meaning oily, oleaginous: Crayola (see Carbon Black and Oilfield Crayons).
An inspired Buffalo, New York, confectioner soon used fully refined, food-grade paraffin and a sense of humor to find a niche in America’s imagination.
When John W. Glenn introduced children to paraffin “penny chewing gum novelties,” his business boomed.
By 1923, J. W. Glenn Company employed 100 people, including 18 traveling sales representatives.
Glenn Confections later became the wax candy division of Franklin Gurley’s nearby W.&F. Manufacturing Company. There, the ancestors of Wax Lips chattered profitably down the production line. Among the most popular of these novelties at the time were Wax Horse Teeth (said to taste like wintergreen).
By 1939, Gurley was producing a popular series of holiday candles for the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company using paraffin from a nearby refinery at Olean, New York – once home to the world’s largest crude oil storage site.
A field of metal tanks, some holding 20,000 gallons of paraffin, stood next to Gurley’s W.&F. Manufacturing Company in Buffalo.
Decorative and scented paraffin candles soon became the company’s principal products, accounting for 98 percent of W.&F. Manufacturing sales.
Gurley’s “Tavern Candle” Santas, reindeer, elves and other colorful Christmas favorites today are prized by collectors on eBay, as are his elaborately molded Halloween candles. As W.&F.’s wax candy division, Glenn Confections, has continued to manufacture Fun Gum Sugar Lips, Wax Fangs, and Nik-L-Nips.
In Emlenton, Pennsylvania, a few miles south of Oil City, the Emlenton Refining Company (and later the Quaker State Oil Refining Company) provided the fully refined, food-grade paraffin for these bizarre but beloved treats.
Retired Quaker State employee Barney Lewis remembers selling Emlenton paraffin to W.&F. Manufacturing. During a 2005 interview he noted, “It was always fun going to the plant…they were very secret about how they did stuff, but you always got a sample to bring home,” adding, “Wax Lips, Nik-L-Nips…the little Coke bottle-shaped wax, filled with colored syrup.”
Today, Concord Confections, a small part of Tootsie-Roll Industries, continues to produce Wax Lips and other paraffin candies for new generations of schoolchildren. The petroleum industry produces an astonishing range of products for modern consumers, but few are as unique, peculiar, or revered as Wax Lips.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact email@example.com. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.