A BRIEF HISTORY OF CANDLES

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CANDLE – FROM THE NATIONAL CANDLE ASSOCIATION.

My obsession with candles has always me curious about how they were discovered. Imagine the impact that was made by finally lighting ancient man’s world after dark. When I started investigating the first candle uses, I learned the use of candles did NOT come about as easy as flicking on a light switch (  pun intended ). There were thousands of years of development and improvement before candles were the source of joy they are today. I hope you enjoy reading the review I wrote about the candle in history.

ANCIENT TIMES

The candle has been used by humans to illuminate ceremonies and light the way for the last 5,000  years. The Egyptians used light to their advantage. This ancient civilization is credited with the first use of torches in their early form, called rush lights. Rush lights were made by soaking the pithy parts of reeds in melted animal fat, called tallow, then burning the entire thing. They were  placed in holders, as illustrated above.

As you can imagine, this combination of ingredients gave off a putrid-smelling smoke while not providing very effective lighting  for the nighttime. I could not be sure if the  Egyptians used these inside their dwellings, due to the smell and smoke. But, torches and rush candles are not technically considered candles, because their use does not involve a wick.


Historically, the Ancient Romans are credited with the development of the wick candle. They devised a method of rolling many layers of papyrus, thus forming the wick. These wicks were then dipped in melted beeswax  (preferred, but not easily available) or tallow ( which involved the use of boiling the suet of animals ) again giving off an acrid, thick smoke. Beeswax candles were the better choice, but tallow candles were used extensively before the mechanical production of the candle.

 

Beeswax candles were used by Romans for religious ceremonies only because they were very expensive. Beeswax candles could be found only in the living quarters of the wealthy, inside churches and  ceremonial gatherings. By 3000 BC, all global civilizations were using wicked candles made with whatever was locally available, usually tallow. The geography of the places these civilizations lived in determined the materials used to produce the wax and wicks.

  1. The ancient Chinese made candles by pouring melted wax into paper tubes. They used rolled rice paper for the wicks. The wicks were put into the wax from some indigenous insects, mixed with seeds from local bushes.


2. The ancient Japanese civilizations used wax they extracted from tree nuts. The also discovered that boiling the fruit of     the cinnamon tree gave off a pleasing aroma. This could have been the first inspiration of the scented candle .

3. Around this time, candles were becoming extensively used in religious ceremonies. Hanukkah, The Festival of the Lights, centers around the lighting of candles. This practice dates back to 165 BC.

4. For those interested in finding Biblical references to the use of candles in religious ceremonies, they abound. For  example, in the 4th Century, Emperor Constantine ordered the use of candles as part of the annual Easter Service.

 

THE MIDDLE AGES

By this time, most Western civilizations were using candles. It was discovered that the use of smelly,  tallow could be replaced by beeswax. The benefits, explained previously, were less offensive and smoky than tallow candles, but they were expensive, used mostly in churches and the residences of the wealthy. In Europe, tallow candles were still used extensively.

 

THEN, COLUMBUS DISCOVERED AMERICA!

 

16th Century

The frontier and pioneer women are credited with the discovery of the scented candle. Women discovered that when you boiled the fruit of the Burberry bush berries the wax emitted a pleasing scent. Popularity eluded this invention because separating the wax from the mixture proved too tedious using the tools of the day. Most people still had to deal with tallow, instead of beeswax. Candle making still had a long way to go.

The 18th Century

During the 1700s, the burgeoning whaling industry brought the first major change to candle making since the Middle Ages. Chemists discovered that wax could be made from crystallizing sperm whale oil produced spermaceti wax. This was used to replace the bad-smelling tallow. It burned cleaner, gave off a brighter flame and was more durable than beeswax. It didn’t bend in heat and didn’t soften in transport. The first “standard” candle was made from spermaceti wax.

 

THE MODERN CANDLE

The 1800s saw the biggest change to impact candle making. In 1830, when a French chemist discovered how to extract stearic acid from animal fat. From that time on, stearic wax was used. It burned yet cleaner and was more durable. The Industrial Revoution’s effect on candle-making was the invention of a machine that produced candles mechanically.The machine poured wax into a reuseable mold. It also employed a plunger that forced the finished candle out of the machine.  The invention of mass-produced candles made them affordable to most  households.

 

1850 brought the introduction of paraffin wax, when chemists realized naturally-occuring petroleum could be refined into cheap wax. This really made candle use popular and enjoyable. in these times, lighting the darkness was more important than the environment. We now realize the burning of petroleum-based products emits petrochemical soot. Petrochemical soot emits carcinogens. The burning of it is toxic.

 

Today, we can enjoy a variety of candles, made from our choice of wax and wicks. Just imagine, we have candlelight at our control these days. We can enjoy them day or night; scented or unscented. Compare this thought to the image at the top of the page: ancient rush light holders. These were used to hold the first man-made light by burning tallow and weeds. I realized how lucky I was to have come along when my passion was so easy and affordable to enjoy and share with others.

 

 

IN SUMMATION

 

Candles and their holders have been in use throughout history of man. They have gone through many changes and improvements over the passage of time. Candles have a long and involved history for something that is so simple and convenient to us. Sometimes it took thousands of years to develop the next improvement for producing candles. Still, due to the need for light, civilizations persisted.

Many humans had to live with poor lighting, heavy smoke , danger and terrible smells throughout the ages. Today, candles are made out of a variety of materials, safe, easy to use and produce light and mood that have given hope, marked both happy and sad occasions, and produced mood-enhancing environments that calm and delight ( pun intended ).

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