Candle Making History
Necessity is the mother of invention and early candles sometimes took rather bizarre forms to utilize available resources. Like civilization, candles have also evolved and many of the early candles bear little resemblance to those we use today. The use of, and improvements to candles has paralleled mankind's ascent from the stone age. There is no historical record of the first candles used by man, however clay candle holders dating from the fourth century B.C. have been found in Egypt. Early Chinese and Japanese candles were made with wax derived from insects and seeds molded in paper tubes. Wax skimmed from boiling cinnamon was the basis of tapers for temple use in India. The first known candle in America dates to the first century A.D. Native Americans burned oily fish (candlefish) wedged into a forked stick. Early missionaries in the southwestern United States boiled the bark of the Cerio tree and skimmed the wax. Settlers in New England used the same technique to obtain wax from Bayberries. To this day Bayberry candles are made the same way, although cost is prohibitive since it takes one and a half quarts of Bayberries to make an 8 inch taper candle. Tallow, made by rendering animal fat was another common candle making material. Because of its odor, beeswax was preferred although more expensive. The advent of paraffin in the 1800's made tallow obsolete, and it is rarely used in candles anymore.
Candle making as we know it began in the 13th. century when traveling chandlers went door to door making dipped tapers from their clients tallow or beeswax (wealthier clients). The first use of molds for candle making was in 15th. century Paris.
The Renaissance of candle crafting was during the 19th. century. Candle molding machines were developed in the first half of the century. In 1811 pioneer work lead to the development of stearin. The braided wick was introduced in 1825. This year also saw the manufacture of stearic acid (a candle additive used to harden and opaque wax) begin. Paraffin development began in 1830. A continuous wicking machine was invented in 1834. Mordanting of wicks was a major breakthrough in 1834. Mordanting causes the burned end of the wick to curl outside of the flame zone where it turns to ash. Manufactured paraffin was introduced in 1850, providing an alternative to tallow. In 1854 paraffin and stearin were combined to create stronger candles, very similar to those we use today.
Chandlery has pretty much continued to this day with few changes, other than differences in styles. Mold technology has improved, new additives are available such as dyes, and scents. Most modern candles are made of Paraffin, although beeswax candles are undergoing a recent surge in popularity. Bayberry candles are still made, but rare. Most recently the late 20th Century has seen the development of other types of wax such as gel wax.
Although industrialization has brought many changes to our world, a vast number of candles are still made by hand. Although we may be using gas or electricity to melt the wax, improved ingredients, and better molds - the basic process of candle making has not changed substantially for Centuries.
Candlepower is a common term for describing light output. It is based on a measurement of the light produced by a pure spermaceti candle weighing one sixth of a pound, burning at a rate of 120 grains per hour. Spermaceti is found in the head of Sperm Whales, and was used to make candles in the past.
Disclaimer: The information presented here is accurate to the best of my knowledge and common candle making practices as of the time of this writing. Originally published in 1997 and updated in January 2006 and June 2011. The author and the publisher accept no liability for the use or misuse of any of the information presented in this article. This article is presented for informational purposes and is used at your own risk.
Author: Bob Sherman
Publisher: Bobby's Craft Boutique Inc.
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