The romance of the candle was a hard, laborious and messy necessity for most people in the 1800s. But scientific and industrial advances gradually replaced the homespun, home-dipping process that made it possible to mend and read after dark. From pigs to petroleum, candles have evolved to be neater, longer-lasting, less expensive and far less smelly.
O Pioneers! O Pew!
Poor people in the early 1800s made candles from the tallow or animal fat collected during the annual autumn slaughter. Cows, sheep and pigs contributed to the 400 candles the average household needed each year to keep the lights on. Sheep tallow was favored because it had the least objectionable odor. Pig tallow was all the poorer farmers could afford, and it smelled rank. Twisted cotton and linen wicks were hand-dipped over and over and allowed to dry until a taper of sufficient size was made. Those candles required constant trimming -- up to 40 times per night -- and the smell could choke you. Beeswax produced excellent, fragrant candles, but it was hard to obtain; the candles were generally reserved for wealthy people and church clerics. Pioneer women in America discovered that the wax of native bayberry plants made a pleasant smelling candle, but it took a lot of bayberry leaves and labor to produce a few candles. Those clever, and overworked, women also invented a bar -- called a broach -- to hold several wicks at once so multiple tapers could be dipped in lard or tallow at one time and set to harden while another broach was dipped.
A Tale of Whale-Light
By the 1800s, the whaling industry off the Atlantic coast was in full swing, and a waxy substance from the whale's head, called spermaceti, made excellent, durable and much less foul-smelling candles and lamp oil. It did have a certain odeur de poisson but represented a huge improvement over pig fat. As spermaceti was abundantly available, the candles were, too, although still expensive for working class families. Advances in making molds and factory mass-production of candles took some of the burden off the homemaker, and chandlers' shops and itinerant chandlers did a brisk business. Farther afield, in remote areas like the Louisiana Territory, native wax myrtle was boiled to make candles that had many of the desirable features of bayberry.
Palm Oil and Petroleum
Progress marches on, and the discovery in the mid 1800s that paraffin wax could be distilled from petroleum -- and a chemical called stearin could harden candles so they would hold their shape and burn longer -- transformed candle-making. And the introduction of machines that produced uniform large quantities of candles drove down the price. Plantation owners experimented with making candles from coconut oil and palm oil in the mid-1800s, but the invention of light bulbs cut into the popularity of candles, and the industry declined.
Bees Do It
Candles throw off a soft, flattering, flickering light that will never go out of style. Today, only hobbyists dip their own, but some classic ingredients are still popular. Beeswax is the premier candle material -- clean-burning, sweet-smelling, nontoxic and beautiful. Palm oil is used extensively for commercial production but is coming under fire because it involves destruction of a habitat for endangered orangutans. Odoriferous lard is an historical footnote, as are spermaceti candles. But bayberry candles show up at Christmas -- the real ones cost more than cheaper candles with artificial bayberry smell.
- McCord Museum: Household Heating, Lighting and Hygiene in the 19th and 20th Centuries
- Cat Island: The History of a Mississippi Gulf Coast Barrier Island; John Cuevas
- Candle Making Like A Pro: A Complete Guide; Vanessa D. Langton
- Rainforest Rescue: Ikea: Stop Palm Oil Candles and Save the Habitat of 130 Orangutans
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .