It is understood that forms of candle have been used for thousands of years, by many cultures, to light homes and guide people on journeys in the dark.
Early forms of candle, believed to have been developed by the Ancient Egyptians, were manufactured by soaking the cores of reeds and rushes, such as bulrushes, in melted fat rendered from the remains of animals; these candles differed from today’s candles as they typically had no wick.
Other cultures that independently developed early forms of candles include; the people of sub-continental India who made wax skimmed from boiling Cinnamon, the Chinese believed to have manufactured candles by forming a wax, made from insects and seeds, around a rice paper core, and the Japanese who made wax from tree nuts. However, it is generally thought that the Ancient Romans were the first to develop candles with wicks.
Before the Middle Ages, European cultures continued the tradition of manufacturing candles from fat rendered from cattle and sheep, known as tallow, during the Middle Ages Beeswax was introduced into the manufacture of candles.
Beeswax candles were initially only used within the Church as they were expensive and became known as Church Candles, a term still used in the candle industry today. Beeswax candles had a number of advantages over the tallow candles, primarily; the candles burned much cleaner, without producing smoke, and the candles gave off a sweet smell – tallow candles were known to produce a foul, unpleasant, odour.
During the Middle Ages candle makers, known as Chandlers, formed two candle making guilds – the wax candle makers and the tallow candle makers. As the tallow candle makers were manufacturing candles from rendered animal fat they were closely associated with the butchers and animal skinners. As the base material for tallow candles was also the base material for soap, many tallow candle makers also became soapmakers.
The wax candle makers, using predominantly beeswax, were often quite wealthy because of the constant demand for their product from the Church and wealthy individuals due to the benefits their candle products offered. Indeed, the significant differences in costs of tallow and beeswax led to the introduction of Chandlers Laws, which regulated the percentage of tallow that could be used in a candle. In addition to being cheaper, the addition of tallow to beeswax resulted in stronger candles, with the additional advantage that the beeswax helped to mask the odour produced by the burning tallow.
In the 15th Century moulds were first introduced in the manufacture of candles; until then Chandlers produced candles by repeatedly hand dipping wicks in wax to build up layers of wax until the candle reached the desired diameter, a process that is still used today in the manufacture of hand dipped candles.
Little then changed in the technology employed in the manufacture of candles until the 18th Century, when the growth of the whaling industry provided a volume of spermaceti wax that allowed candles to be manufactured from the material in commercial quantities. Spermaceti wax candles were manufactured from the oil found in the head of the whale which produced a clean burning, low odour wax. These candles burned brightly and spermaceti wax became the main wax used in the manufacture of candles until the subsequent development of Stearin wax.
During the 19th Century the process to extract stearic acid from animal fat was discovered. This discovery, and manufacture of stearic acid, led to the development of Stearin wax, a clean burning and durable wax ideal for use as a fuel for candles. Indeed, Stearin candles are very much in use today, though today the stearin is generally produced from plant based materials and the candles have been developed to offer a more superior burn quality.
The 19th Century also saw the development of the processes to separate paraffin from petroleum and refine the material for use in the manufacture of candles. Due to these new processes, paraffin wax was more economical to produce than any of the previous materials used for candle making and became the material of choice for mass market candles, being still widely used today. However, the 19th Century also saw the invention of the light bulb, the product that would eventually result in the demise of the candle for everyday lighting.
The 20th Century has seen the candle being used for decorative purposes and mood setting, helping create ambience in the home and environment, the candle also becoming popular as a gift; candle gifts ranging from glass jar fragranced candles to boxed candle gift sets.
Manufacturing techniques have developed, allowing candles to be made in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and types, reflecting the almost endless contemporary style demanded by the user. Late in the 20th Century, candle making technology advanced, recognising the environmental concerns of the day, as natural wax candles were developed for the manufacture of candles from palm wax and soy bean wax.
Once our primary source of light, now candles are a source of pleasure, symbolising celebration, romance and relaxation, a home décor accessory, so now what does the future hold for candles and candle making?