The History of Candles

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Candles today are used to create warmth, scent and ambiance in our homes. There was a time quite long ago when candles were a necessity for lighting the darkness. The first mention of candles in the bible was as early as the 10th century BCE. Clay candle holders found in Egypt date back to 400 BC. The candles were then made from sticking wicks into containers filled with flammable material.

It has also been noted that the ancient Egyptians used rushlights or torches, made by soaking the core of reeds in molten tallow. This type of candle had no wick. It was the Romans who are credited with developing the first wick candle.

The Egyptians and the Roman’s gathered tallow from cattle or sheep suet as their main ingredients in candles. Since tallow was cheap and easily available, Tallow candles were widely used for many centuries.

It is said that the Romans used candles during the Saturnalia festival. During the festival, tall papers of wax were offered to Saturn (an angel of God).

The Chinese made candles from whale fat. In India, they used the wax from boiling cinnamon for candles in their temples. Japanese candles were made from extracting wax from nut trees. In the first century AD, the indigenous people from the region between Oregon and Alaska used a fish called the eulachon or “candlefish”, which is a type of smelt.

The oil from this fish was used, or a candle could be made by putting the dried fish on a stick and lighting it.

Tallow was still used during the first century AD, however the tallow was smoky and odorous. In the early 1500’s the beeswax was introduced as an alternative, however, beeswax was more difficult to obtain. Since beeswax was difficult to obtain and costly, beeswax candles were used almost exclusively by the wealthy, upper class and the Church.

With Christianity becoming more widespread, the custom of placing candles in the window began to be popular. The Irish Christians believed that placing a candle near a window on Christmas Eve would guide the Christ Child as he wondered from house to house. The people of Europe have kept this tradition going.

Early colonial women made their first contribution to candle making by boiling the berries of the bayberry bush to produce a sweet smelling, clean burning wax. This didn’t last long, as the task of extracting the wax from the bayberries was tedious and the use of the bayberry candle diminished.

In the 18th century, candle makers began to use sperm whale oil to make candles because it was clean burning and low on odor like beeswax. They also found that it was harder than beeswax and withstood the summer heat better. In the Victorian period, candles were being placed on the Christmas Tree as a symbol of the star which guided the three wise men to the dwelling of Jesus. In 1890 candle holders were used for only one year to hold the candles to the tree. Before that, melted wax was used or the candles were pinned to the tree.

In 1834, Joseph Morgan introduced a candle making machine that used a cylinder with a movable piston that ejected the candles as they hardened. In 1850, paraffin wax was made from oil and coal shales. It was processed by distilling residue after crude petroleum was refined. Paraffin was found to burn clean with no odor, and the cost was very economical. The only threat to paraffins popularity was its low melting point. By the end of the 19th century, stearic acid was being produced and most candles consisted of paraffin and stearic acid. Soon the devastation would begin in the candle industry.

The distillation of kerosene would hurt the candle industry because it made an excellent fuel for lamps. In 1879, the introduction of the light bulb caused the candle making profession to decline until the turn of the century when there was a renewed popularity for candles. Candle making was enhanced during the first half of the 20th century due to the growth of the U.S. oil and meatpacking industries. Several meat packing and oil producing companies also had candle businesses. In 1829, Price’s Candles, William Wilson, made candles from coconut oil and later he tried palm oil. In 1854, Williams brother George distilled the first petroleum oil. In 1919, Price’s Candles was purchased by Lever Brothers. In 1922, Candles Ltd was created. By 1991, the last remaining owner of Candles ltd was sold off by Shell Oil Company.

Today, candles have become more of a decorative item. Candles are now available in a broad variety of sizes, shapes and colors. During the 1990’s a new type of candle wax was being developed due to an unusual demand for candles. Soybean wax, which was softer and slower burning than paraffin, has become popular. Candles are used today to warm our hearts with alluring scents of remembrance and romance. They are also used as symbolic in celebrations. Candles are used in weddings to define ceremony and in our homes to accent decor. Candles are even popular to light paths for outdoor parties. In fact, I can’t think of a single reason not to use candles every day!