Party Pointers: The History of Candles

Candles create instant atmosphere–their glow makes an intimate, comforting feel, with a touch of romance and a sense of warmth. There is something about the flickering golden flame that transforms a humble supper into a dinner for two–the enchanted circle of light encourages people to look at each other anew, to appreciate and listen with long-forgotten fascination. At home, at parties indoors and outdoors, candles provide the ambience. Learn more here about the history of candles.

The little flame was the emblem of hope, life, truth, virtue, wisdom, and in religious observance, of the love of God.

Accounts of candle use date back to ancient times–archaeologists agree the Egyptians knew how to make candles, because they found candlestick holders dating from as early as 1600 B.C., and there are Biblical references as early as the tenth century BC. The oldest bit of a real candle from the first century was found in France near the town of Avignon. The writer, Pliny the Younger, mentioned lights made from burning tallow (the fat of animals).

Other writers talked about rush lights made from reeds peeled on one side, and dipped in melted fat or wax. The Romans made candles with wicks and wax similar to the candles we have today. For wicks, they used a roll of papyrus treated to slow down the burning. They cleaned tallow or beeswax with seawater, and then bleached it in the sun. Repeated dipping of the wick in the melted tallow or wax built up the body of the candle, just as we build up our hand-dipped candles today.

Candles became very important for religious observances in Christian churches. The first Christian emperor, Constantine, used candles in the Easter service during the fourth century. At Candlemas, February 2, all the candles to be used in the church in the coming year are blessed, in remembrance of the presentation of Jesus in the temple, when the aged Simeon addressed Christ as the Light of the World.

For many centuries, candles were considered expensive items in Europe. Beginning with the sixteenth century, however, living standards improved, and candles could be found in ordinary households. Rush lights and tallow candles, usually made from sheep or cows, were the only recourse of the poor until the 19th century. The slaughter of one bull provided enough tallow for three years’ worth of candles, and a well-organized household would produce 300 or so in a candle-making session.

Typically, these candles were a dark yellowish color, and it is presumed that they gave off an unpleasant smell. Tallow would also become rancid — it’s animal fat, after all. In warm weather, the candles would bend and melt.  No wonder the candle makers (and the housewives) kept looking for a better way to make candles.

But soon the making of candles became a craft. In the thirteenth century, in both England and France, there were groups of candle makers organized into guilds. In 13th-century Paris, the members of a guild of tallow chandlers went from house to house making candles. The wax chandlers made and sold their candles in their own shops. In the 15th century, a candlemaker named de Brez, of Paris, revolutionized the business by inventing the candle mold. Beeswax resisted the newfangled mold, and until this century, with the discovery of silicon-releasing agents, it has always been shaped by dipping. In France and Britain, the Guild of Wax Chandlers was created to protect beeswax workers from taint by association with tallow chandlers.

In a particularly punitive piece of British legislation, candles were taxed in 1709, and people were forbidden to make their own. This progressively more stringent tax was finally repealed in 1831, resulting in a renaissance of decorative candles.. The nineteenth century brought the development of patented candlemaking machines, making mass-produced candles widely available at much lower cost.

At the same time, a chemist named Michel Eugene Chevreul made an important discovery. He realized that tallow was not one substance but a composition of two fatty acids, stearic acid and oleic acid, combined with glycerine to form a neutral, non-flammable material. By removing the glycerine from the tallow mixture, Chevreul invented a new substance called “stearine.” Stearine (also called “stearin”) was harder than tallow and burned brighter and longer. This led to the development of better candles.

Stearin also made it possible to produce better wicks that didn’t have to be snuffed and trimmed. Wicks—which had been made by simply twisting strands of cotton—were now plaited tightly; as a consequence, the burned portion curled over and was completely consumed, rather than falling messily into the melting wax. This kind of wick was known as a “self-trimming” wick.

More improvements—such as the addition of lime, palmatine, and paraffin—developed in commercial candle manufacture. It was discovered that paraffin wax, which was extracted from crude oil, equalled beeswax and spermaceti candles for brightness and hardness, and were cheaper. Today, paraffin wax is widely used in commercial candlemaking.

The quality of candle light depended upon the type of material used. Beeswax, for example, gave off a much brighter light than tallow. In addition to tallow and beeswax, another material known as spermaceti became popular for candlemaking. Spermaceti was derived from the oil present in the head cavities of sperm whales. These candles burned with a very bright light—so bright that a spermaceti candle flame was used as a standard light measure for photometry (the science of light measurement). Spermaceti candles were slightly cheaper than beeswax candles.

By the 1850’s stearine and paraffin led to better candles, but this precisely coincided with the sudden availability of inexpensive kerosene lamps. The simple candle’s heyday was eclipsed. But, as it became possible to monitor the quality of the candle and to predict the length and speed of the burning, candle design branched out into all the types available today.

These days, barring power outages, candles have no other function than to give pleasure and to provide a nostalgic alternative light source. The smooth glossiness of machine-made candles, the fragrance of beeswax, the sweetness of scented candles make them lovely objects in and of themselves.


Adapted from and Book of Candles by Miranda Innes (1991).

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