The candle industry is booming. The desire for a flickering flame and the need to cocoon ourselves in the sanctuary of our homes is as strong as ever. But where did these amazing creations originate? And why have they grown to be a hugely popular home product that we all adore? Here’s a complete rundown on the history of the candle.
Early origins of the candle
It may be surprising but little is known about the earliest history of the candle. We do know, however, that they have been a source of light and used in celebrations for over 5,000 years.
The earliest known use of candles is by the Egyptians. These clever folk soaked the pithy core of rushlights, or torches, in animal fat to burn. These torches did not have a wick like the modern candle.
The early wicked candle
While Egyptians were using wicked candles as early as 3000 BC, the early Romans are credited with developing the first wicked candles. The Romans dipped rolled papyrus in melted tallow or beeswax. The resultant candles were then used to light their homes.
If we look at early China, candles are said to have been moulded in paper tubes. Rice paper was used for the wick. The wax from insects was combined with seeds.
In Japan, candles were made of wax extracted from tree nuts. In India, candle wax was made by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree.
Ancient indigenous tribes of contemporary Alaska and Canada used the eulachon, or ‘candlefish’, as a source of light and heat. These small, smelt fish contain rich quantities of oil, which was ideal for sustained lighting.
Candles and the Middle Ages
After the fall of the Roman Empire, olive oil became a scarce commodity across Europe. This led to a shortage of fuel for oil lamps and burners. As a consequence, there was a surge in demand for quality candles. Commercial candle making was born leading to a revolution in this industry.
In Medieval England, candle makers were known as ‘chandlers’. These skilled candle makers produced candles, different kinds of vinegar, soaps and cheeses.
Chandlers sold candles from shops and market stalls. Tallow became the number one ingredient for candle making across Europe. Tallow, however, came with limitations. When burned, the glycerine inside tallow produced an unpleasant odour. The quality of light from tallow was also, dim and poor.
Soon after, beeswax was discovered. This wax proved to be a much more reliable substance for candle production. Beeswax burned well without producing a smoky flame. It also emitted a pleasant sweet smell rather than the acrid, bitter odour of tallow.
Beeswax candles were widely used for church ceremonies. Like tallow, beeswax also came with limitations. They were expensive and only the wealthy could afford to burn them in the home.
The growth of the whaling industry in the late 18th led to a major change in candlemaking. Spermaceti, a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil, became available in quantity.
Like beeswax, the spermaceti wax did not give off an acrid odour like tallow. When burned, it produced a bright light. It was also harder than tallow and beeswax, so it wouldn’t soften or bend in warmer climates.
Historians note that the first ‘standard candles’ were made from spermaceti wax.
Candle making and the twentieth century
By the 19th century, candles had become big business. They were manufactured on an industrial scale. Demand was created from a growing population and better living conditions for the masses as a result of the rapid industrialisation of nations.
In 1834, Joseph Morgan, a pewterer from Manchester, England, patented a machine that revolutionised candle making.
This more efficient mechanized production produced about 1,500 candles per hour allowing candles to become an easily affordable commodity.
It was also right around this same time that a chemist named Michael Eugene Chevreul identified for the first time that tallow consisted of various fatty acids. One of the fatty acids he identified was stearine (stearic acid).
In 1825, Chevreul and another chemist Joseph Gay Lussac patented a process for candle making from crude stearic. This resulted in stearin wax.
Stearin wax was hard, durable and burned cleanly. This process drastically improved the quality of candles.
Stearin candles still remain popular in Europe to this day!
Modern candle making today
It was not until the 1850s, that paraffin wax came on the scene. James Young filed a patent to efficiently separate the naturally-occurring waxy substance from petroleum and refine it.
Paraffin, a by-product of oil, is an often-used wax in candle making due to it having good burning properties and relatively cheap for consumers.
The usage of candles declined after the 1980’s when Edison pioneered the commercially-viable incandescent light bulb. It would be a while before many households could afford electricity; however, many switched from candles to kerosene lamps or had gas installed.
Candles still featured in religious celebrations, festive decorations and on birthday cakes but, in terms of domestic use, candle popularity gradually dwindled.
Today, we have come full circle and the candle business is booming once again. Candles are in vogue. In the UK, Brits spend circa 1.9 billion pounds on candles annually and in the US this figure is 3.2 billion dollars!
There has however been a shift in the waxes used in candles. Due to health concerns with the toxins given off during the burning process of the traditional paraffin candle, they have been, in part, replaced by new waxes and wax blends.
Candle businesses, to satisfy their increasingly ethically minded customers, are ‘greening their businesses‘.
Manufacturers are increasingly looking at waxes such as soy, palm and flax-seed oil. Sometimes these waxes are blended with paraffin in hopes of getting the performance of paraffin.
The creation of unique wax blends, now requiring different fragrance chemistries and loads can mean that many different wicks are needed to work in the candles.
The choice for the modern consumer, when it comes to candles is vast, and not always easy to navigate.
A complete history of the candle – wrapped up
Candles have come a long way since their initial use by the Romans and Egyptians. While they are no longer used as a major source of light, they continue to grow in popularity. Candles serve to symbolise a celebration, soothe the senses and improve home decor. There warm and inviting glow continues to inhabit modern homes around the globe.