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About Country Light Candles > History of Candles

17 Jul 2004

The candle is the oldest means to supplying light. Although a number of changes have been made to methods of candle manufacture, there is no basic difference between a candle made in the past and one made today.

References to lighting candles date back to ancient times as early as 3000 BC in Crete and Egypt. Candles are mentioned in Biblical writings as early as the tenth century BC. A fragment of candle from the first century AD has been found in Avignon, France.

Candles were used in great halls, monasteries and churches of medieval times. In addition, candles were used to light cottages and shops. King Alfred of England stuck torches in walls to supply lighting. The simplest (and smelliest) candles known as rush light were made by dipping rushes in leftover kitchen fat.

For many centuries, candles were considered expensive items in Europe. Town-made candles from the wax-chandler were available for those who could afford them. These candles were made of wax or animal fat and were placed in silver, wooden or pewter candlesticks.

From the sixteenth century onwards, living standards improved as evidenced by the increasing availability of candlesticks and candleholders and their appearance in households. At this time, candles were usually sold by the pound and sold in bundles of eight, ten, or twelve candles. Everyday candles were made of animal fat (tallow) , usually from sheep (mutton) or cows. These candles were usually a dark yellowish color and probably gave off a nasty smell.

In England, both the wax chandlers and the tallow chandlers formed their own guilds. Wax chandlers were considered more upper class than tallow chandlers. Their business was also more profitable because people were prepared to pay more for a wax candle. The English Tallow Chandlers were incorporated in 1462 and they regulated trade in candles made from animal fats.

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 candle-making. 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 but are no longer made because of environmental concerns.

The nineteenth century brought the development of patented candle-making machines, making candles available for the poorest homes. In an attempt to protect the industry, England passed a law forbidding the making of candles at home without purchase of a special license. At this 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 was harder than tallow and burned brighter and longer. It is this substance known today as stearin or stearic acid that led to the improvement of candle quality. Stearin also made improvements in the manufacture of wicks possible. It put an end to the constant round of snuffing and trimming wicks once they were lit. Instead of being made of simply twisted strands of cotton, wicks were now plaited tightly; the burned portion curled over and was completely consumed, rather than falling messily into the melting wax.

More improvements such as the addition of lime, palmatine, and paraffin developed in commercial candle manufacture. Paraffin wax was extracted from crude oil . It equaled beeswax and spermaceti candles for brightness and hardness and were cheaper. Paraffin wax is still widely used today in commercial candle-making, although the introduction of soy based candles is becoming more popular due to health awareness.

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