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Candles in The Wind, Home And Other Places: Wherever Did They Come From?
by Marjorie Dorfman

Where did candles come from and who were the first people to light them and curse the darkness, as the old saying goes? Read on and you may see the light. And then again, you might not. Read on anyway.

Throughout the evolution of history, necessity has forced the invention and adaptation of the natural world to the ever-changing needs of the human race. Candles are no exception as their use and improvements paralleled man’s development from primitive times. Although there are no written records concerning the first use of candles by man, clay candleholders found in the ruins of ancient Egypt date back to the fourth century BC and it is known that they formed candles from beeswax.

Candles were also known to the ancient Asian civilizations, such as China, Japan and India. In China, whale fat as well as wax derived from insects ands seeds were often used to create candles. They were then molded for use into tubes of paper. In India, the wax from boiling cinnamon was the basis for tapirs designated for ceremonial use. They were also used as time-keeping devices. In 848, King Alfred used a candle clock, which burned for four hours. Later, twenty-four hour candles were invented based on the same concept. The Sung Dynasty in China (960-1279) also used candle-clocks.

The first known candles used in America date back to the first century AD when Indian tribes burned oily fish, known as eulachon (candlefish) wedged into a forked stick. In the southwestern United States, missionaries began another tradition of boiling the bark of the Cerio tree and skimming the wax. The early settlers of New England employed the same method to extract wax from bayberries. Bayberry candles are made in the same fashion to this day, and are extremely costly due to the fact that it requires 1-1/2 quarts of Bayberries to make one 8-inch taper candle!

The earliest surviving candle in Europe was discovered near Avignon, France, and dates back to the first century AD. Candelabras were also found in excavations in Pompeii. Recorded history dates the art of European candle making as originating in the 13th century. The popularity of candles is demonstrated by their use in religious celebrations, notably Candlemas and on Saint Lucy festivities. Tallow candles were usually replaced with beeswax on these occasions as the glycerin in the tallow creates a very unpleasant odor. Salesmen known as chandlers (not related to that 1950s actor from Brooklyn), traveled door to door throughout the towns, making dipped tapers from their clients’ tallow or beeswax, if clients were of the more opulent class. These tradesmen were also involved in the manufacture of soaps, sauces, vinegar and cheese. Tallow, which is fat derived from cows or sheep, was the standard material used for candles in Europe.

By 1415, tallow candles were used in street lighting, but some cities banned their manufacture because of the smell. Candle-making molds didn’t appear until the 15th century in Paris. The oldest candle manufacturers still in existence are Rathborne’s Candles, founded in 1488 in Dublin, Ireland. Until the 1800s, there were few changes in the making of candles.

In the course of the 18th century, there were several changes in candle design and origin. In China, weights were designed and fitted into the sides of candles. Thusly, when a candle melted, the weights fell off, making a noise as they fell into a bowl. (It is not known how 18th century Chinese insomniacs may have reacted to this.) Also in that same century, around 1750, spermaceti, which comes from the sperm whale, was used as a source for very expensive candles.

Several major changes occurred during the 19th century that marked this period as a "renaissance" for the craft. Colza oil was discovered, which provided a much cheaper alternative to spermaceti. Candles made from that and similar oil derived from rapeseeds yielded candles that produced clear and smokeless flames. Molding machines were developed and also stearin (a wax hardener) was introduced in 1811 by two French chemists. Derived from animals, like tallow, these candles had no unpleasant odors because they contained no glycerin.

The year 1825 brought the braided wick, and paraffin development began in 1830. (It would not be manufactured until 1850.) In 1834, the mordanting of wicks, which caused the burned end of the wick to curl outside of the flame and turn to ash, marked a major breakthrough. In 1854, paraffin and stearin were combined, creating stronger candles. These were very much like those that are manufactured today. Styles are different and varied as the advent of modern technology bought improvements in molds and additives, such as dyes and scents.

The candle industry was devastated by the distillation of kerosene, which provided an excellent and safe fuel for lamps. From this point on, candles took a step backward and never stepped forward again as the light supplier of the world. From that time on, they have been considered as decorative items only.

Paraffin is the major ingredient of most modern candles although beeswax is also very popular. Candles will always have their place in homes throughout the world. They are symbols of home, hearth, hope and enlightenment, and have often been depicted as such in literature and art down through the ages. They may never have the important task of lighting the world they once had, but speaking of candlelight, per se, there’s not much that can "hold a candle to it."

Happy Candles and personal enlightenment to all and to all a well-lit night!

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Copyright 2006