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All About Candles

Updated on November 30, 2016

A candle is a cylindrical piece of tallow or wax that contains a wick of cotton or linen and is burned to give light. The origin of the candle can be traced back to about the year 2000 B.C. The earliest candles may not have had wicks, and the Romans were probably the first people to make candles in their present form. Before the 18th century, beeswax and tallow were the most common substances used to make candles. Spermaceti, a white crystalline wax obtained from the head cavity of sperm whales, became the main source used by candlemakers in the late 18th century.

From the middle of the 19th century to the present the majority of candles have been made of paraffin wax, stearine, or a mixture of both. Today most wicks are made of cotton yarn that is braided by machine. In the braiding process the wick is infused with mineral matter that fuses the ash of the wick and prevents the candle from smoking.

Photo by Gabriel Currie
Photo by Gabriel Currie

Candles and Rush Lights

Candles one might think to be more ancient than lamps, though in fact the notion of fat or wax melted and solidified around a wick is more complex than the early lamp, which simply consisted of a wick rising from a fuel reservoir. Moreover, they supplied a relatively good illumination, they were easily portable, and were not so messy in use or so offensive to the nose.

The Romans had both wax and tallow candles, and also knew the technique of the rushlight, which is a slender form of candle in which the wick is made of the prepared pith of rushes. They regarded candles as inferior to lamps (thus Martial writes in one of his poems of the first century A.D. 'I am sorry the footman has walked off with your lamp: you will have to do with a candle'), but this unusual state of affairs was probably because they possessed in olive oil an excellent and abundant lamp fuel. Candle and rushlight were popular in areas where wax or fat was easier to obtain than the better kinds of oil, and where normal temperatures were not high enough to soften candles to a troublesome degree.

The white candle of bleached wax is said to have been introduced to Byzantium in the fifth century A.D. The Anglo-Saxon chronicler Asser describes the time-keeping candles used by King Alfred (who reigned from 871 to 901 A.D.). These were made of beeswax and six of them, to burn twenty-four hours, weighed as much as seventy-two of the silver pennies of the time. This means that each candle weighed about two fifths of an ounce. A modern beeswax candle of this weight and with a wick of appropriate size does in fact burn for just about four hours.

Beeswax and tallow were the two older fuels in the candle. For use in church the more expensive wax candles were obligatory, and well-to-do householders also preferred them; they smoked less, smelt less and did not require such frequent attention as candles made of tallow, which is simply the refined fat of animals. For banquets or festivities a good wax candle might be left for hours without disaster (though it would burn much better if trimmed), whereas a tallow candle could not be left for more than half an hour, by which time it might provide only a seventh of its original light.

The popularity of the tallow candle was a matter of economy: beeswax was a by-product of the production of honey, which in early centuries was the only material for sweetening purposes and for brewing such drinks as mead. Tallow, on the other hand, was a waste product, and tallow chandlers went round from house to house collecting surplus fat, which they often made there and then into candles for the household, without much refining. Craft guilds to regulate the profession of wax or tallow chandler were formed in both France and England in the Middle Ages.

Wax candles could not be molded; they were made by hanging wicks of fiber from a cross bar and pouring melted beeswax down them at intervals until a wax wall of the required thickness had been built up around the wick. For large church candles of wax this process is repeated today in identical form, though the wicks are woven of cotton in a special way. Tallow candles were usually made by one of two processes: either the wicks were repeatedly dipped into a vat of melted tallow at intervals, thus building up the candle (so the expression tallow dip as well as the tallow candle), or the wick could be threaded through an iron mold and the tallow just poured in and round. The tallow shrank on cooling, and the candle could therefore be released from the mold.

Rushlights were simply tallow candles, usually with rather thin walls of tallow around the pith of rushes (which was also used for the thicker dips). In English country districts they were a usual cottage illumination well into the nineteenth century, and rushlight holders are common in the museum of bygones. Gilbert White in the Natural History of Selborne (1789) exactly describes the making of rushlights from the widely distributed rush Juncus effusus, which peels more easily than most other kinds. The rushes were cut in the summer or autumn and put in water, then peeled so as to leave one even rib of outer covering from top to bottom, which supported the pith. These wicks were left out on the grass to bleach and take the dew for several nights, and were then dried in the sun and dipped in scalding fat or grease. 'A good rush' of two feet four inches burned for three minutes short of an hour and gave a good clear light. White calculated that a poor family enjoyed four and a half hours of comfortable light for a farthing. Sixteen hundred rushes went to a pound and required six pounds of tallow, which the farm laborer might get from the scummings of his bacon pot. Nevertheless Gilbert White complained that the poor, who were 'the very worst economists', preferred to buy candles costing a halfpenny which would not last for more than two hours.

Other fuels which have been used and are still used include spermaceti and (in America) the waxy berries of the Bayberry, Myrica carolinensis, which give the green, sweet-smelling Christmastime candles. Modern candles are mostly made from paraffin wax, which is derived from mineral oil. The wicks are woven in such a way that they bend over into the flame and are completely consumed in the process. So they do not require that frequent snuffing, or clipping of the charred wick, which was necessary up to at least 1820. Paraffin wax is easy to mold, and the machines in use today are very similar to those developed in America in 1855 by Humiston and Stainforth. They cannot be speeded up, since candles need to be left in the molds for about twenty minutes.


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