A candle business goes up in smiles

One summer, back when the happy-face symbol was scarcely known, our teenage daughters were trying to figure out a way to earn some money. They had done baby-sitting, conducted a playschool, and taught gymnastics, but this year they were looking for something drastically different. It was late May when Tam came home with a bright idea.

"I just saw a cute mug with a smile face on it," she said. "I wonder if they'd sell if we put those faces on little round candles?

"Probably not," I said pessimistically. "And it would take months to develop something like that."

Nevertheless, Tam ran with her idea. She researched where to find copper molds; the right kind of printers' ink that would not smear or smoke and would adhere to wax; where to have a smile stamp made; and what kind of dyes and wicks to buy. Finally, she enlisted the help of her dad to devise a stamping machine and cooling trough to speed up production. Her research was thorough, but now the month of June was almost over.

Grumbling under my breath, I allowed them to set up shop in the garage. Tam appointed her younger sister, Kit, as shop foreman, and together they began to experiment. Emboldened by their success - a few smiling faces set in globes of orange, blue, and yellow wax - they took their product to a local gift shop.

"Hmm," said the owner, "I think I could use some samples for a trade show next week. Can you have five dozen ready by then?" The girls worked nonstop. Privately, their mother felt their time would be better spent in looking for dependable summer jobs, but her negative thoughts were silenced when the store owner came back with an order for 10,000 candles! The girls were flabbergasted. Could they do this? Sure they could, they decided, if they hired neighborhood kids to help.

The next two weeks were spent perfecting the process. The shop was then set up in earnest, kids arriving each morning at 9. Mollified, I held my tongue as the first 500 candles were finished, boxed, and delivered. Satisfied that her main work was completed, Tam took off for California at the end of July on a previously planned, long-anticipated trip, leaving the shop in charge of foreman Kit.

On Aug. 1, disaster fell. "Kit," complained the gift-shop owner, "Your candles are bubbling - they look awful!!" Production instantly stopped while Kit retrieved the candles and appraised the situation.

What went wrong? Was it the cooling of the wax? The temperature to which it was heated? A chemical reaction? Frantically she experimented with one thing after another, but still the faces bubbled. Telephone lines hummed coast to coast with calls between the two sisters. Their mother, now a convert to the cause, agonized to see this promising project come to such an ignominious end.

Finally, in mid-August, the solution was found: They hadn't allowed sufficient cooling time between stamping the faces and the second dipping. Also, a different wax needed to be used for the final coating. Kit was relieved that the problem was solved, but she dreaded to face the store owner, for she knew that time had run out. She could never fill the order for 10,000 candles before she and Tam had to return to school. With a quaking heart she awaited his wrath, but it never came.

"Kit," he admonished her, "You and Tam have learned the lesson of your lives - and gained $10,000 worth of experience. Go back to school and be wiser for it."

Tam returned from California undaunted. "We'll put an ad in the paper and sell the business." Her aim was high. Not the local paper, but The Wall Street Journal proclaimed:


For Sale: Small operation can be set up in garage or basement with 3 to 7 semiskilled workers. Assured market allows for expansion. Best offer.

The girls were surprised when offers came in from around the country. Quickly they decided on the winner: a woman whose husband had a tool and die business, and who could help her run the candle shop. Her offer of $3,000 (about $10,000 today) held one proviso: that Kit go to Pittsburgh and help set up the business. This Kit did, and the whole family heaved a sigh of relief and gratitude.

The workers were paid, the garage was emptied, the girls returned to school, and they actually had some earnings to show for their summer's work. Great lessons had been learned ... not the least by their mom. Granted, I was a slow and reluctant learner, but the lesson stuck: Never underestimate the power of your children!

What happened to the 500 bubbly-faced smile candles? They were given to a friend of Tam's who wanted to melt them down for sand-cast candles. In September, however, a major hurricane struck our area, causing extensive power failures and flooding many coastal basements, including the one where the candles were stored. When a fireman went to pump out the basement, he was greeted by a sea of floating faces, smiling cheerfully amid the disaster.

"Wow!" he exclaimed. "May I have them? The town has run out of candles, and we need all we can find." So the candles ended up doing their intended work after all ... with a smile.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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