A Brief History Of Candle Making
Flip a switch and turn on a light! If there is one thing about modern life we really take for granted, it is indoor electric lighting. Imagine, if you will, a home in the Middle Ages. It is night, and the day’s hard work is done. A single candle lights the interior of the room. This candle provides light for the family’s night time activities. It occupies a distinguished position in human history. The candle is one of mankind’s earliest inventions. The history of candle making is a long and interesting story.
The candle uses wax as fuel to produce light. Once the wick of a candle is lighted, heat from the flame burns the wax, which flows into the wick by capillary action. It’s a simple device, and it ruled the night for thousands of years.
Archeological digs have unearthed candlesticks in Egyptian and Cretan sites dating to about 3000 BC. Before this the Egyptians used a device called a rush light. A rush light was made from the pithy core of the rush plant, which was soaked in tallow and burned for light.
Tallow was the main ingredient of candles for thousands of years of our history. Tallow is processed from the fat of cattle and sheep. These candles emit a very disagreeable odor and a lot of smoke when burned. They were used to light homes, temples, and meeting places. Travelers used them to light their way.
It is the Romans who probably learned how to make candles from beeswax. Beeswax is superior to tallow because it burns much cleaner, and is odorless. But it was also very expensive, so its use was limited to the nobility and the Church.
American Colonial women discovered that a superior wax could be extracted from the bayberry. This wax was very clean burning and produced a sweet aroma. The difficulty in extracting the wax from the berry prevented it from replacing the more readily available tallow.
Whales have the bad fortune to have a substance called spermaceti in their enormous bodies. Spermaceti produces a very high quality wax which makes candles superior to both tallow and beeswax. Since it is harder than these other waxes, the candles don’t bend in hot weather, a common problem for tallow and beeswax candles. By the 1700’s the whaling industry was supplying this highly valued substance for use.
Candle making has a history of being a labor intensive business. Wax has to be melted and hand poured into molds. Taper candles, the earliest candles made, must be dipped many times to make a candle. Molded candle production became a lot easier in 1834 because of a gentleman by the name of Joseph Morgan. Mr. Morgan invented a candle molding machine. This machine consisted of a mold which had a movable cylinder for its bottom. Wax was poured into the mold and allowed to cool. The cylinder bottom was then moved up, forcing the hardened wax candles out of the top. Continuous production of candles was now possible.
The best material for making candles was developed near the end of the candles long reign. Automobiles were becoming popular in the late 1800’s, and the need for petroleum to fuel the new internal combustion engine became great. The leftover residues of petroleum production produced a substance called paraffin. It was ideal for the production of candles, as it was economical, clean burning, and odorless. It’s chief drawback was its low melting point, which would have caused problems in warm weather. The independent discovery of stearic acid solved this problem. Added to paraffin, it hardened the candle, and slowed its burn rate. Paraffin/stearine candles soon became standard, totally replacing the tallow candles place in history.
Thomas Edison’s creation of the light bulb in 1879 ended our dependency on the candle as a light source. The candle soon passed from necessity to ornamental. Candles are still used as ceremonial and decorative lights. Skilled crafts people still make candles to light and perfume our homes.
Candle making has been an essential craft in our history. Candles lit our ancestors homes and provided light for sacred ceremonies. Their manufacture contributed to the economy of the civilizations they illuminated. Today, candle making is a craft practiced by many artisans providing a link to our distant past.
The next article introduces some of the equipment needed for this fascinating craft.
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