Candles have been used for light and to illuminate man’s celebrations for more than 5,000 years, yet little is known about their origin.
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.
The Egyptians were using wicked candles in 3,000 B.C., 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. The resulting candles were used to light their homes, to aid travelers at night, and in religious ceremonies.
Historians have found evidence that many other early civilizations developed wicked candles using waxes made from available plants and insects. Early Chinese candles are said to have been molded 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, while in India, candle wax was made by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree. It is also known that candles played an important role in early religious ceremonies. Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights which centers 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. 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 tallow. Beeswax candles were widely used for church ceremonies, but because they were expensive, few individuals other than the wealthy could afford to burn them in the home. Tallow candles were the common household candle for Europeans, and by the 13th century, candle-making had become a guild craft in England and France. The candlemakers (chandlers) went from house to house making candles from the kitchen fats saved for that purpose, or made and sold their own candles from small candle shops.
Colonial women offered America’s first contribution to candle-making, when they discovered that boiling the grayish-green berries of bayberry bushes produced a sweet-smelling wax that burned cleanly. However, extracting the wax from the bayberries was extremely tedious. As a result, the popularity of bayberry candles soon diminished. The growth of the whaling industry in the late 18th century brought the first major change in candle-making since the Middle Ages, when spermaceti-a wax obtained by crystallising sperm whale oil—became available in quantity. Like beeswax, the spermaceti wax did not elicit a repugnant odour when burned, and produced a significantly brighter light. It also was harder than either tallow or bees-wax, so it wouldn’t soften or bend in the summer heat. Historians note that the first “standard candles” were made from spermaceti-wax.