The History of Candles

Candles made from different waxes in different shapes and sizes Candles have been in use for thousands of years but their origins are somewhat obscure.

The First Candles

Many believe that the first candles were developed by the Ancient Egyptians, who used torches and rush lights made from reeds peeled on one side, and dipped in melted fat or wax. These were quite different from the candle as we know it today.

There is archaeological evidence that Egyptians used clay candle holders as early as 1600 B.C., and Biblical accounts of candle use date back to the 10th Century B.C.

Early Chinese and Japanese candles were made with wax derived from insects and seeds and moulded in paper tubes, while in India wax was skimmed from boiled cinnamon to produce tapers for temple worship. In the first century A.D., Native Americans burned oily fish (candlefish) wedged into a forked stick.

The predecessor of our modern day candle was developed by the Romans who were the first to use wicks made from rolled papyrus, treated to slow down the burning. They cleaned tallow (rendered beef or mutton fat) or beeswax with seawater, and then bleached it in the sun. Repeated dipping of the wick in the melted tallow or wax built up the body of the candle, just as we build up our hand-dipped candles today.

The oldest portion of a real candle from the first century was found in France near the town of Avignon.

Candles became very important for religious observances in Christian churches. The first Christian emperor, Constantine, used candles in the Easter service during the fourth century. There was a special day set aside to bless candles and distribute them among the faithful — Candlemas, February 2. Many churches still observe this practice on that day.

Modern Candles

Tallow and beeswax continued to be used by people making their own candles at home, but it wasn't long before the making of candles became a craft. In the 13th Century, in both England and France, there were groups of candle makers organized into guilds. The Tallow Chandlers went from house to house making candles from the animal fat the housewife saved for that purpose. The Wax Chandlers made and sold their candles in their own shops.

However, tallow would become rancid and the candles would smoke and emit a foul odour. In warm weather, the candles would bend and melt.

Attempting to find another affordable wax, early missionaries in the southwestern United States skimmed wax from the boiled bark of the Cerio tree and New England settlers from boiled Bayberries. Bayberries produced a wax that burned cleaner and didn't emit the foul odour of tallow. However it was not considered time or cost effective because it took nearly one and a half litres of Bayberries to make a 20 cm taper candle!

Candles were once made from the oil of Sperm WhalesThe growth of commercial whaling in the late 18th Century made the first significant change in candle making since the Middle Ages. It was discovered that crystallizing Sperm Whale Oil made a superior wax that was available in large quantities. This wax was harder than both tallow and beeswax, so it burned longer and did not soften in the summer heat. Consequently the “standard candle” of the 18th Century was born, making all other waxes obsolete.

During the 19th Century further important changes occurred in candle making. In 1811, French chemist, Michel-Eugene Chevreul, separated the components of glycerin to produce Stearin and eventually Stearic Acid, a candle additive used to harden and opaque the wax.

In 1825 Roman paper wicks were discarded in favour of braided cotton wicks

Candle moulds had been in use since 15th Century Paris, but mass production of candles only became possible in 1834 when inventor Joseph Morgan introduced a machine which continuously produced moulded candles. His machine incorporated a cylinder with a movable piston that ejected candles as they solidified. Another major breakthrough in 1834 was the Mordanting of wicks. Mordanting causes the burned end of the wick to curl outside of the flame zone where it turns to ash.

Candle making was further developed in 1850, with the production of Paraffin Wax made from oil and coal shales. Processed by distilling the residues of crude petroleum refinement, the bluish-white wax burnt cleanly, with no unpleasant odor. More importantly, Paraffin Wax was more economical to produce than any other candle fuel. Paraffin's low melting point was solved by the addition of stearic acid. 

Candles Today

Soy CandlesPeople have always loved candles for the ambience they create, and the craft of Chandlery has continued to this day with few major changes. Mould technology has improved, and additives such as dyes and fragrances have been developed to enhance our enjoyment.

Most modern candles are still made of Paraffin, Beeswax or Gelwax. However studies have shown that Paraffin, a byproduct of Petroleum refining, can create toxic soot deposits in the home environment. As consumers respond to studies showing that paraffin candles potentially harm the indoor environment, there is an increasing demand for natural and vegetable based wax candles such as Beeswax and Soy Candles.

Today, candles symbolize celebration, mark romance, define ceremony, and accent decor — and continue to cast a warm glow in our lives. They also continue to be big business.

The candle has evolved through an amazing and diverse journey. It’s certainly a far cry from the rush torches of Ancient Egypt!

For a more in-depth study of candlemaking history, download

"The Chemical History of a Candle" by Michael Faraday.

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