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Ginger, peppercorn, tobacco leaf, aged teak, sandalwood, amber, dark musk: that’s how Wynnefield “smells” to Jocelyn Johnson and Nadira Tarboro-Howard, cofounders of Philadelphia Candle Co.
It’s not the literal aroma of the air in the West Philly neighborhood, of course — it’s more about the feeling of being there, as captured in a fragrance.
Tarboro-Howard and Johnson chose the area where they live as one of nine neighborhood-inspired candles, all made with a coconut wax base and hand-poured by the pair in Johnson’s basement.
“We always hear of all the bad things that occur in Philadelphia, every single solitary day,” Tarboro-Howard said. “It’s important for us to have something where now we can shine light, literally, on Philadelphia.”
The business got its start in Johnson’s boyfriend’s dining room early in the COVID pandemic before formally launching in November 2020. Tarboro-Howard had been getting migraines when she burned store-bought candles, an experience that inspired the pair to learn the process of making candles that wouldn’t trigger that reaction.
Neither knew much about candle-making, so the two childhood friends — who both also work full-time jobs — learned the process through lots of research and trial and error.
Crafting a neighborhood scent can happen a few different ways. Johnson and Tarboro-Howard, who are both in their 30s and grew up in Philly, like to pay homage to history, as well as how they’ve seen the city change during their lifetimes so far. It’s about being able to “create a memory around it or create some type of feeling around it,” Johnson said.
Sometimes specific elements factor in. The Chestnut Hill candle includes lots of floral notes, for example, because of the area’s reputation as a garden district.
“We want to provide that sense of pride in your neighborhood again,” Tarboro-Howard said. “Because when you have that pride in your neighborhood, you take care of your neighbors, you take care of yourself.”
Word of mouth, social media, and pop-up markets have helped make this the pair’s busiest holiday season yet, and people keep requesting new scents. Brewerytown and Kensington candles are in development right now.
The business has also gained some traction out of town, said Johnson, who’s learned Philly neighborhood names aren’t necessarily unique. She heard about a town called Mount Airy in Maryland, for example.
“People all over the place, all over the country have been enjoying these fragrances,” Johnson said. “And in some way, they mean something to them or the person they’re sharing it with.”
The cofounders credit their success to support from family, friends, and others in their communities.
“We are in a community of people who make it safe for Black women to step out on faith and do something positive in our community,” Tarboro-Howard said, “as well as just something positive in general.”
Philadelphia Candle Co.’s offerings comprise around a dozen locally named scents, including the place-based “LOVE Park,” and “Catto and Still,” for abolitionists and civil rights activists Octavius Catto and William Still.
Some highlights from the collection.
Nadira’s fave: Queen Village
This one is close to Tarboro-Howard’s heart, since it’s where she attended elementary school. It’s a sweet-smelling combo of floral scents that also features notes of sea salt, wood, and tonka bean.
Jocelyn’s fave: Philadelphia
This is a summer-y, “full-bodied citrus scent,” Johnson said, but she didn’t want it to smell like Pine-Sol. So the blend of orange and grapefruit is offset by other scents, like sage, oakmoss, bergamot, and rose.
Crowd favorite: Mt. Airy
This scent — a strong sweet and spicy concoction — is designed to smell “sophisticated,” Johnson said, as a tribute to the neighborhood’s rich history. It offers more than a hint of fruit aromas — apple, black currant, blackberry — plus some warmer-smelling notes, like saffron, vanilla, and amber.
Popular right now: Center City
Meant to represent Philly’s downtown, this fragrance smells fresh and clear-cut. It’s citrusy but also floral, blending scents like lime, basil, bergamot, white daisy, vanilla, sandalwood, and more.
Where to find them
You can order online, and select candles are for sale at a few retail stores: Paper Moon near South Street, Local PHL Market in Washington Square West, Ali’s Wagon in Fairmount, and the Shops at Serendipity in Chestnut Hill and Doylestown.
Exact stock varies by store — often focused on what’s relevant to the specific area — so your best bet is to ask in advance if you’re looking for a particular scent.
Until Jan. 15, you can also find the candles in person at The Enterprise Center’s Black Holiday Pop-Up at 26 S. 52nd St.