Effing it Up: Birdie Hansen waxes nostalgic for a time before her candle empire burst into flames [in a good way]

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Birdie Hansen of Effing Candle Co. // Photo by Travis Young

Birdie Hansen is peeved with the staff of The Pitch

“What in the actual fuck,” Birdie inquires, with her trademark charm, while shaking a cylinder labeled “World’s Best Cat Dad” directly in our faces. 

She’s in our office, where almost every employee’s desk houses at least one of her Effing Candle Co. brand candles. Birdie is coming to realize that, despite the instructions distributed with each of her candles, none of the employees here have properly trimmed down the wicks to achieve maximum longevity from the product and an evenly distributed burn. 

This is the best possible start to a 4-hour interview. She’s trimming the wicks herself now, out of comedic spite. The Birdie is in the building. 

       

To Birdie Hansen, becoming a self-made dipped-wax magnate a la Jan from The Office was not part of the plan.

“When the sourdough phase of the pandemic was winding down in summer of 2020, I needed something to do with my hands and my brain,” she says. “I used to work at Anthropologie so I have burned like a million candles in my life. This started as a pandemic hobby, then turned into an obsession of testing different fragrances, different wicks, different waxes. This was just a little arts and crafts thing for adults that I could have to keep from going insane.”

She began making a few candles for herself, branding them to moments from her life or small gestures of goodwill in the world.

“My first batch was called Warm Hugs. It’s like a sweet tobacco amber and vanilla fragrance. It smells the way a warm hug feels. And there’s a lot of nostalgia factor in there. People smell it and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this reminds me of my grandpa, because he smoked a pipe’”

As she shared images of her batches on her (once modest) social media, friends started asking if they could buy them, but Birdie insisted that they just come by and pick ‘em up for free. Then it started to spiral in scope and scale. When people started insisting that they give her money in exchange, it went overnight from a personal project to a small business.

“There was a day where it became overwhelming, so I was not prepared to have a business that took off,” Birdie says. “I thought I was just making candles in my kitchen for me, and giving them away. And it was no big deal. And then all of a sudden, people were like, DMing me at 10 p.m. on a Saturday being like, ‘I need a custom label,’ or this, that, the other thing. I started ordering supplies in larger quantities and, like, the ceramic vessels? Those alone aren’t cheap. After shipping on my first six months of sales, I was losing money on every purchase. I just wanted people to have them.”

       

So what is an Effing Co. candle, and how did it lead to Birdie being voted “Best Local Maker” in The Pitch’s “Best of 2021” issue?

For Birdie, it’s about quality—not just of product, but of belief. Beyond the concept of candles based in a specific feeling, there’s a high degree of scientific and sustainability that other small (and large) producers cannot maintain.

“I’m biased,” she says, “But I think most candles, especially novelty candles, have absolutely garbage ingredients. I probably don’t talk about the ingredient story enough, but every ingredient we choose is meant to be something you can feel good about burning in your home (biodegradable/vegan/sustainable/USA sourced wax, phthalate/paraben/cruelty-free fragrances, and FSC-certified wicks). Our candles are more fragrant than other brands to help make your house smell incredible, and our slow-burning wax will burn for around 50 hours per 7 oz. jar. Our single-ply wood wicks are all-natural. All wood used to manufacture our wooden wicks is purchased in the USA and only from mills that maintain an FSC certification and practice environmentally friendly forestry standards. All our discarded wick materials are composted.”

What does that mean to the layperson? “If these candles were a musician, they’d be Phoebe Bridgers,” she says. “They’re not for everybody, but when they’re for you? They’re for you.”

And then there are the cheeky names.

“When I was a little girl, I thought the coolest job in the whole world was naming nail polishes, so getting to create the names for the candles is a dream come true,” Birdie says. “One of my favorite scents—Rooftop Margaritas—is named after a night out during a girl’s trip to Mexico and plenty of blood orange margaritas. The scent reminds me of dancing on the table with your friends after one too many drinks.”

       

For the internet, Effing Candles represents a delightful product that occasionally has a foul-mouthed label. For Kansas Citians, the Effing Candle brand is synonymous with having encountered a Birdie in the wild.

Birdie makes constant appearances at craft fairs across the city. Due to a car crash in 2016, she no longer drives, so she Ubers everywhere. When dealing in products as weighty as hers, and in the quantities she pushes, this can often involve a few roundtrips. 

At these pop-ups, locals can experience the fragrance of her products—a luxury unavailable to online shoppers who might be flying blind on their first purchases. But locals also get the in-person benefit of having one-on-one attention from one of our city’s quirkiest characters.

To meet Birdie in person is to both understand why she fully earns that name, and equally, how quickly a cult of personality could build around her. Birdie is, by her own description, “tiny; too fragile.” But her outsized personality can quickly dominate any amount of space. It’s too much eccentric kinetic energy in too small of a container, and to be in its presence is to feel that container bursting at the seams.

“I’m just a person who cares a lot… about a lot of things. Too many things, perhaps,” Birdie says. “But never too many people.”

       

Born in in Long Island, New York, her father was a maintenance worker and her mother a nurse. Since childhood, Birdie has pursued a dozen different career paths, each leading to branching life stories that could have taken her in any direction. She went from opera summer camps to creative arts in college, to a business/legal pursuit back-ended by work in grief counseling and a mortuary.

Bouncing everywhere from Boston to Los Angeles, the candlemaker has lived more lives than a cat, and that’s why she has the diverse skill set to run her own sprawling business. 

“I try to make candles that reflect a specific moment in time,” Birdie says, referring back to the products built around hugs and drunken dancing.

Bottling up a slice of life doesn’t always mean bottling up the good things.

Last September, Birdie found out her mother died. “She’d actually died 18 months prior,” Birdie says. “She passed away and they couldn’t get in touch with the family, and if you don’t tell anyone where to look, no one goes looking.”

In recent months, her long-ailing cat Luna also passed away. Running a one-woman show becomes even more difficult as life starts to pile on.

“You’re at a pop-up and realize that you should just be at home with your cat, but you’re in a slow season and the business can’t fall apart. The next morning, your cat is dead on the kitchen floor. Thirty minutes later, you get a call that 450 pounds of wax and fragrances are about to be delivered. I’m sitting in the parlor, holding my dead cat, while my husband and our neighbors are trying to deal with pallet delivery, up the steps of a 126-year-old house, and you don’t get to pick and choose when you fall apart. You just have to keep running your business, and you have to keep living your life. And sometimes that hurts a lot.”

       

“I grew up in a family that very much believed that little girls should be seen and not heard,” Birdie says. “I grew up with all these thoughts, ideas, and opinions just stuffed inside me. And they had nowhere to go. So, now when I have an opinion, they’re big. I think people want women to have small opinions. I’d rather be seen as an asshole instead of not being seen at all.”

At some point, Effing Candles pivoted hard into a lane far outside of rooftop drinks and old leather. What follows is an answer to a question no one has ever asked: How politically radicalizing can you make a smell?

“This didn’t come from a place of political activism,” Birdie says. “It started as shitposting, and then it just never stopped. I’ve reached my ultimate form, as a small business owner fueled entirely by shitposting.”

Since the 2016 election wherein the Clintons and Kanders of the world were rejected, Birdie says she turned to her online community as a place to make jokes and to survive.

“We were worried it was going to suck, and it does suck,” she says. “So what the fuck are we going to do to make it suck less? It lit a fire inside of me, where I had these huge opinions now and I wanted to share them. That’s easy to do in person in places I lived before, like New York or LA, but you’re not always in a room with that same kind of person here in Missouri. Here, if I wear the wrong shirt, I get scowled at in the grocery store.”

After the Jan. 6 insurrection, Birdie—like most of America—was simply in awe of what a dirtbag Josh Hawley had acted on the national stage.

“I had this orange creamsicle candle that no one had pre-ordered,” Birdie explains. “I was printing labels at home and I thought it would be funny to make a candle that says ‘Josh Hawley Sucks’ and just post it online. I printed 12 labels and took a picture with my phone and just went on with my day. When I came back to Twitter, I had hundreds of likes and retweets, and my direct messages were tons of people asking how they could buy one. I panicked because there was no way I could fill these orders. I set up a pre-order page, and so many people wanted it that—that’s the point this went from a cute little hobby to a full-time job.”

As a publication, it brings us no pleasure to say this, but, “Thank you, Josh Hawley.”

“I had another fragrance sitting around that smelled like Chai, macadamia, and coconut,” she adds. “It smelled to me like sunscreen and bad decisions. And Ted Cruz had just gone on vacation in Mexico instead of keeping people in his state from freezing to death. So, the candle Cancun Cruz was born. It went viral on TikTok and… you know how Kelis’ milkshake brought all the boys to the yard? My Ted Cruz smell brought all the Democrats to the yard.”

Earlier this year, as it became obvious Roe v. Wade would be under attack from the Supreme Court, Effing Candles released a cause-based scent (with notes of eucalyptus, spearmint, and cucumber) that Birdie knew would change how she did business—and lived—moving forward. Ahead of its release, she hired a lawyer, stopped doing pick-up orders from her home, and had her address scrubbed from the internet.

The label reads “Abortion is Healthcare.”  A large portion of each sale supports Planned Parenthood Great Plains. For a candle, it was not received warmly by certain groups, especially after it was retweeted by high-profile personalities like Monica Lewinsky and Busy Phillipps.

And then the death threats started pouring in.Monica Lewinsky Rt

“Our Shopify and our contact page are places where people can send me a message, and people rarely send a message there to tell me how much they like a candle,” Birdie says. “I’m told my views are horrible and that I’m a baby killer. Even for me, as someone with low self-esteem, at least that means I’m doing something right. I’d rather be hated for an outspoken position than for standing up for nothing at all, because that also means there are people that will love you.”

This isn’t even to suggest that the only people who get frustrated with her work align with the right. Occasionally, her most critical comments—or even well-intentioned suggestions from social media—come from those on the left who don’t believe she’s gone far enough.

“We used to have a tagline about being luxury candles with a sense of humor,” Birdie says. “But now I guess sometimes we aren’t making people laugh.”

Birdie has posted in an explainer to followers who are asking for more intense labels. “Curse words violate terms-of-service on advertising platforms. Controversial topics, like abortion, cannot be promoted either. Are you a lawyer? Do you know what libel, defamation, or slander are and the intricacies of the law? No? You can state an opinion, like Josh Hawley Sucks, but you cannot say ‘Josh Hawley is a Rab Bitch’ and sell the product unless you are okay with getting sued or losing your biz.”

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In June, Stacey Abrams made a statement about raising police wages, which stands in contrast to the candidate’s platform back when Effing was selling a “Stacey MF’ing Abrams” candle. Birdie’s response was to add a sticker to her remaining stock of the candle, saying “…is a bootlicker. Defund the police.”

The Abrams candle was no longer sold as an individual item and was instead bundled in its relabeled state in various blind box shipments. Which did not go over great with Democrats that were hesitant to bail on a politician they’d backed in the past.

“We made one candle, once, for a hero,” she says. “Never again. Back to bad men and good movements,” Birdie says. “I have mixed feelings about the sticker sitch getting twisted without a dissertation,” she adds. “Long and short of it, I am not an ACAB person, but I do think that the massive amount of city budgets that go toward police funding could be used in a thousand other ways.”

Shockingly, this bridge too far was the first time some followers considered what Effing does to be political in nature.

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Can a candle make a difference? This city seems to think so. Birdie’s operation has such high demand that it has finally expanded beyond her kitchen and into a storefront at 3703 Main St.

“Our house has, since late last year, been unusable. At any given point in time, there are 1,500 glass jars, 4,000 lids, 500 pounds of wax, and 16 to 18 fragrances. Our kitchen is where we make everything and our dining room is where we keep direct-to-consumer stuff. Without the air fryer having space in the kitchen, I think we would starve.”

With Effing’s compound rate of success and expansion, even the Main Street location won’t last them long.

“I can do the projections,” Birdie explains. “In five years, there will be a warehouse. There will be full-time employees. So many other products that reflect our values. We’re currently up around 460% as a business, year over year. The numbers feel imaginary. But there’s so much going on. There’s another election in two years, and local elections long before that. There’s so much happening to people legally right now. There’s so much good we can do at now o’clock.”

       

On the day this story went to press, Birdie arrived at her store to discover that it had been broken into during the night. “I wanted a space that was a little open and airy, but this is ridiculous,” she posted on social media, captioning a photo of all the glass windows fully smashed to bits on the street.

When asked if they took anything from the new shop, Birdie responds, “They didn’t take any candles. Honestly, I’m most hurt by that. Why wouldn’t you take a candle? They’re really good candles!”

Sweeping up the glass from inside her unairconditioned studio while cracking jokes, you can see why it would be impossible to stop Birdie Hansen from being out here, constantly Effing it up.


The Effing Candle in-person store will host a series of soft openings later this month. You can always purchase candles online here.

Categories: Culture