The History of Candle Making
While candles are now predominantly used as decoration or as a means of infusing fragrance historically they provided a vital source of light for many homes and businesses and were also used extensively in religious and spiritual worship. Across the centuries, candle making has taken many forms with different cultures using their own unique methods and ingredients to create these simple, yet hugely significant, products. Though it may be hard to believe, candles have drastically evolved from those first incarnations.
To celebrate the development and sheer brilliance of the candle, here we explore the history of candle making. From its origins in ancient Rome to the present day.
The Early Days
Candles have been used for light and to illuminate man's celebrations for more than 5,000 years, it is often written that the first candles were developed by the Ancient Egyptians, who used rushlights or torches made by soaking the pithy core of reeds in melted animal fat. However, the rushlights had no wick like a true candle.
Development of wicked candles by those clever Romans
The Egyptians were using wicked candles in 3,000 B.C., Prior to the candle, people used oil lamps in which a lit wick rested in a container of liquid oil. Liquid oil lamps had a tendency to spill, and the wick had to be advanced by hand but the ancient Romans are generally credited with developing the wicked candle before that time by dipping rolled papyrus
repeatedly in melted tallow or beeswax (Papyrus is a material similar to thick paper that was used as a writing surface). While candles were popular in Roman times, the main source of light came from oil lamps. Olive oil was cheaper and more prevalent across the Empire. Candles were considered a luxury item and were often given as gifts during Saturnalia a festival celebrating the Classical Roman god, Saturn.
Historians have found evidence that many other early civilizations developed wicked candles using waxes made from available plants and insects. In the 1990s, archaeologists unearthed candle remnants in the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of the Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C. These were found to contain whale fat. Whilst other candles from the period were also made using beeswax.
A tradition which continues to this day. Early Chinese candles are said to have been moulded in paper tubes, using rolled rice paper for the wick, and wax from an indigenous insect that was combined with seeds. In Japan, candles were made of wax extracted from tree nuts, candles in ancient India were made using a combination of boiled cinnamon and yak butter thus creating the
world’s first pleasantly-scented candle. These were used extensively in spiritual worship. Temple candles are still created using this simple, time-honoured method to this day.
Another example of early candle making is found among the ancient indigenous tribes of Alaska and Canada. They used the eulachon, or ‘candlefish’, as a source of light and heat. These small, smelt fish contain rich quantities of oil ideal for sustained lighting. The indigenous people of North America would dry the candlefish on a long wooden stick before lighting it, creating a powerful natural candle. The odour however was very unpleasant.
It is also known that candles played an important role in early religious ceremonies. Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights which centres on the lighting of candles, dates back to 165 B.C. There are several Biblical references to candles, and the Emperor Constantine is reported to have called for the use of candles during an Easter service in the 4th century.
Most early Western cultures relied primarily on candles rendered from animal fat (tallow). A major improvement came in the Middle Ages, when beeswax candles were introduced in Europe.
By the 13th century, guilds of candle makers, labelled as “Chandlers”, had sprung up throughout England and France. These guilds were divided by type - the wax candle makers and the tallow candle makers. Guilds that opted to use tallow were more closely aligned with the butchers and skinners of the time and often delved into soap making as well.
Unlike animal-based tallow, beeswax burned pure and cleanly, without producing a smoky flame. It also emitted a pleasant, sweet smell rather than the foul, acrid odour of the glycerine present in tallow. Due to the sheer expense of the sweet-smelling beeswax candles, they typically reserved for church ceremonies though some of the wealthier families of the time would opt to burn them in their home's as well. Chandlers who created wax candles were often much better off than their colleagues who focused their work on tallow yet tallow was the go to product of its time.
The next major improvement came in the late 18th century as a by-product of the quickly growing whaling industry. An oil was discovered in the head of the sperm whale which proved ideal in mass candle making.
Between the first catch of sperm whales in 1720 and 1743 came the discovery of using spermaceti - a wax obtained by crystallizing the sperm whale oil.
Though originally brown in colour, 'spermaceti wax' was bleached before being sold, making it appear white and translucent. Much like beeswax, spermaceti wax did not produce a foul odour when burned and provided a brighter light than other candles available on the market at the time.
With a melting point around 122 degrees Fahrenheit, the wax was significantly harder than tallow or beeswax, preventing it from going soft or bending during the summer months. As such, it was from spermaceti wax that the first 'standard candles' were created.
19th Century Advances
Most of the major developments impacting contemporary candle making occurred during the 19th century. In the 1820s, French chemists Michel Eugene Chevreul and Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac discovered how to extract stearic acid from animal fatty acids.
The manufacture of candles also became an industrialised mass market in the mid 19th century. In 1834, Joseph Morgan, pewterer from Manchester, patented a machine that revolutionised candle making. It allowed for continuous production of moulded candles by using a cylinder with a moveable piston to eject candles as they solidified. This more efficient mechanised production produced about 1,500 candles per hour allowing candles to be an affordable commodity for the public as a whole. Candlemakers also began to fashion wicks out of tightly braided (rather than simply twisted) strands of cotton. This technique makes wicks curl over as they burn, maintaining the height of the wick and therefore the flame. Because much of the excess wick is incinerated, these are referred to as "self-trimming" or "self-consuming" wicks.
Paraffin wax was introduced in the 1850s, after chemists learned how to efficiently separate the naturally occurring waxy substance from petroleum and refine it. Odourless and bluish white in colour, paraffin was a boon to candle making because it burned cleanly, consistently and was more economical to produce than any other candle fuel.
It's only disadvantage was a low melting point. This was soon overcome by adding the harder stearic acid, which had become widely available. By the end of the 19th century, candles were made from paraffin wax and stearic acid. Stearin candles remain popular in Europe today.
By the late 19th century, Price’s Candles based in London, was the largest candle manufacturer in the world. Founded by William Wilson in 1830, the company pioneered the implementation of the technique of steam distillation and was thus able to manufacture candles from a wide range of raw materials, including skin fat, bone fat, fish oil and industrial greases.
Despite advances in candle making, the candle industry declined rapidly upon the introduction of superior methods of lighting, including kerosene lamps and the 1879 invention of the incandescent light bulb.
The 20th Century
Candles enjoyed renewed popularity during the first half of the 20th century, when the growth of U.S. oil and meatpacking industries brought an increase in the by-products that had become the basic ingredients of candles – paraffin and stearic acid.
The popularity of candles remained steady until the mid-1980s, when interest in candles as decorative items, mood-setters and gifts began to increase dramatically. Candles were suddenly available in a broad array of sizes, shapes and colours, and consumer interest in scented candles began to escalate.
The 1990s witnessed an unprecedented surge in the popularity of candles, and for the first time in more than a century, new types of candle waxes were being developed. In the U.S., agricultural chemists began to develop soybean wax, a softer and slower burning wax than paraffin. On the other side of the globe, efforts were underway to develop palm wax for use in candles.
Candles have come a long way since their initial use. Although no longer man's major source of light, they continue to grow in popularity and use. Today, candles symbolize celebration, encourage romance, soothe the senses, define ceremony, and accent home decors — casting a warm and lovely glow for all to enjoy.
Thank you for reading our post on the History of candle making. Our hand poured luxury candles marry fine fragrance traditions that have been around for centuries, helping to infuse your home with wonderful scent.