Candles have been used for light and illumination for more than 5,000 years. However, little is known about their origin. It is believed that the first candles were developed either by the Ancient Egyptians or the Romans. Through the years, candles have continued to evolve from being a necessity to more of an item for celebrations and home décor.
The First Candles
The Ancient Egyptians used torches by soaking the pithy core of reeds in melted animal fat; however, these lights had no wick so are not really a true candle. The first candle with a wick is credited to the Romans who dipped rolled papyrus repeatedly in melted tallow or beeswax. The resulting candles were used to light their homes, for religious ceremonies and to aid travelers at night.
Historians have found evidence of other early civilizations developing candles with wicks using waxes made from available plants and insects. In Japan, candles were made of wax extracted from tree nuts. Early Chinese may have molded candles in paper tubes, using rolled rice paper for the wick and wax from an indigenous insect that was combined with seeds. In India, candle wax was made by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree.
Candles during the Middle Ages
Most early Western cultures relied primarily on candles rendered from animal fat (tallow). During the Middle Ages, beeswax candles were introduced in Europe. Unlike animal-based tallow, beeswax burned pure and clean, without producing a smoky flame. It also emitted a pleasant, sweet smell rather than the foul, acrid odor of tallow. Beeswax candles were widely used for church ceremonies, but since they were expensive, few individuals other than the wealthy could afford to burn them at home.
Tallow candles remained the common household candle for Europeans. By the 13th century, candlemaking had become a guild craft in England and France. Candlemakers (chandlers) went from house to house making candles from the kitchen fats saved for that purpose. They would also make and sell their own candles from small candle shops.
Colonial women were the first to bring America’s contribution to candlemaking. They discovered that boiling the grayish-green berries of bayberry bushes produced a sweet-smelling wax that burned cleanly. However, extracting this wax was extremely tedious, so the popularity soon diminished.
The first major change in candlemaking since the Middle Ages came in the late 18th century. Spermaceti, a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil, became available in quantity. Like beeswax, the spermaceti wax did not elicit a bad odor when burned, and it produced a significantly brighter light. It was also harder than either tallow or beeswax, so it didn’t soften or bend in the summer heat. Historians note that the first “standard candles” were made from spermaceti wax.
We will continue with candles through the 19th and 20th centuries to today in part 2 of this blog series. Be sure to check back for that later!