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.
Most of the major developments impacting contemporary candle-making occurred during the 19th century. In the 1820s, French chemist “Michel Eugene Chevreul” discovered how to extract stearic acid from animal fatty acids. This led to the development of stearin wax, which was hard, durable and burned cleanly. Stearin candles remain popular in Europe today. In 1834, inventor Joseph Morgan helped to further the modern-day candle industry by developing a machine that allowed for continuous production of molded candles by using a cylinder with a movable piston to eject candles as they solidified. With the introduction of mechanised production, candles became an easily affordable commodity for the masses. 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. Its only disadvantage was a low melting point. This was soon overcome by adding the harder stearic acid, which had become widely available. With the introduction of the light bulb in 1879, candle-making began to decline.
Candles have been used for thousands of years and up until the early 1900s they were the single source for artificial light. Candles also have a rich tradition in religious services in many faiths through-out history.Today, the candle is no longer the single source of light but is used abundantly in religious services as well as in birthday celebrations, holidays, and home decorations.Originally, candles were made from tallow, which was extracted from cattle and sheep, in the early Egyptian and Roman times. These early candles burned poorly and probably smelled even worse. The Roman Empire was the first to provide evidence of a candle that resembles the candle today. They melted the tallow until it was a liquid and poured it over fibers of flax, hemp, and/or cotton, which were used as a wick. These candles were used in religious ceremonies as well as lighting for their travel and homes.
During the Middle Ages candles became more prevalent in worship. It was at this time that beeswax was used to make candles. These beeswax candles were made much like the Romans made their candles with tallow. Beeswax was a drastic improvement from the tallow, but limited quantities were available, which made it expensive limiting it to clergy and the upper class.
In colonial America the early settlers discovered that they were able to obtain a very appeasing wax by boiling the berries from the bay-berry shrub. This wax created a very sweet smelling and good burning candle; however the process of making the bayberry wax was very tedious and tiresome.
In the 18th century the whaling industry thrived and as a result, whale oil was available in large quantities. Spermaceti wax was derived from the whale oil and was used as a replacement for tallow, beeswax, and bayberry wax. The spermaceti wax candle did emit a rather unpleasant smell but the wax was hard enough to hold shape in the hot summer months.
The 19th century was a defining time for the candles and candle making. The first patented candle making machines were introduced. This breakthrough allowed candles to reach the homes of all classes. It was also right around this same time that a chemist named Michael Eugene Chevreul identified for the first time that tallow or animal fat consisted of various fatty acids. One of the fatty acids he identified was stearine (stearic acid). In 1825, Chevreul and another chemist named Joseph Gay Lussac patented a process for candle making from crude stearic. This process drastically improved the quality of candles.
The braided wick was also invented in the 19th century. Wicks before this time were made simply of twisted strands of cotton, which burned very poorly and needed constant maintenance. The braided wick was tightly plaited and a portion of the wick curled over and enabled it to be completely consumed.
It was in the middle of the 19th century that paraffin wax was first used in a candle in Battersea, UK. This led to the commercial production of paraffin, which is an oil distillate. Paraffin burned clean, bright and without an odor. The paraffin was also blended with stearic acid, which hardened the wax and created a superior and cheaper candle.
Today the candle market offers candle lovers a wide variety of candles produced from a wide variety of waxes: paraffin, vegetable waxes, beeswaxes and the newest trend of gel waxes. These candles are offered in a myriad of colors, shapes, designs and fragrances. Candles are no longer the sole source of light but they are desired for their ambience, home decoration and fragrance.
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 byproducts 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 notably. 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 symbolise celebration, mark romance, soothe the senses, define ceremony, and accent home decors—casting a warm and lovely glow for all to enjoy.