History of Candles and Candle Traditions

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From basic light source to mood lighting to providing a fresh, welcoming scent, candles have long played an integral role in our daily lives. Few creations as simple as the candle have had such a long-lasting impact on civilization. While little may be known about their origin, the history of the candle is still a fascinating subject to explore.

Early Candles 

Due to their very nature and purpose, it is almost impossible to know who created the first candles.

Evidence of candle making and its development is evident throughout many places in history.

From the early Greeks who used candles to honor the birth of the goddess Artemis, to the Romans with their papyrus wicks,  to India where a wax was created by boiling cinnamon, it is impossible to say just who has the right to say they invented the first candle.

Many consider the first candles to have been created by the Ancient Egyptians through the use of rushlights or even torches.

However, these early versions of the candle were made by soaking the core of reeds in melted animal fat and thus, lacked a traditional wick.

This style of the miniature torch-like candle was also used for several centuries in the British Isles by the less fortunate. 

Beginning about 500 BC, the Ancient Romans began to develop candles of own - complete with the now customary wick.

Their candles were created by dipping rolled papyrus in melted tallow or beeswax numerous times. These candles were used throughout their daily lives, from lighting their homes to religious ceremonies and events. 

Evidence of whale fat candles have been found in China dating all the way back to the Qin Dynasty.

These candles were created by using rolled rice paper as the wick while paper tubes served the shaping mold. In addition to using whale fat as wax, they also created a wax from a local insect that was then combined with seeds. 

Evolution of Candles Throughout the Centuries

Though it may be hard to believe, candles have drastically evolved from those first incarnations. One of the first improvements came with the introduction of beeswax candles to Europe.

Beeswax votives burned clean and pure, lacking the smoky flame of the prior widely used animal fat based tallow candles.

Due to the sheer expense of the sweet-smelling beeswax candles, they typically reserved for church ceremonies though some of the wealthier families of the time could opt to burn them in their home as well. 

By the 13th century, guilds of candle makers, also known as Chandlers, had sprung up throughout England and France.

These guilds were divided by type - the wax candle makers and the tallow candle makers.

Guilds that opted to use tallow were more closely aligned with the butchers and skinners of the time and often delved into soapmaking as well.

Due to the constant demands from the church and high cost of creation that only the wealthy could afford, Chandlers who created wax candles were often much better off than their colleagues who focused their work in tallow. 

18th Century

The next major improvement came in the late 18th century as a byproduct of the whaling industry's growth.

Sometime between the first catch of sperm whales in 1720 and 1743 came the discovery of using spermaceti - a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil - in candle making.

Though originally brown in color,'spermaceti wax' was bleached before being sold, making it appear white and translucent. Much like beeswax, spermaceti wax did not produce a foul odor when burned and provided a brighter light than other candles available on the market at the time.

With a melting point around 122 degrees Fahrenheit, the wax was significantly harder than tallow or beeswax, preventing it from going soft or bending during the summer months.

As such, it was from spermaceti wax that the first 'standard candles' were created. 

It was in the 19th century that many of the major developments that lead to the creation of candles as we know them today took place. Following the work of French Chemists, Michele Chevreul and Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac came the development of stearin wax. Candles made of this wax are still quite popular in Europe. 

Following the advent of Joseph Morgan's candle mold maker in 1834, the manufacture of candles became a mass market.

With Morgan's machine allowing for the production of 1,500 candles per hour, candles became a much more affordable option for the public as a whole. It was also around this time that candle makers began to tightly braid their wicks rather than twisting them as they had been doing.

This process causes the wick to curl over as the candles burn which in turn maintains the height of the wick and the flame as well. 

Shortly before the decline of candle making came the introduction of paraffin wax in the 1850s.

This wax was used to create inexpensive candles that were high quality, something that had been mostly unheard of in candle creation before this time.

The bluish-white wax burned cleanly and offered no unpleasant odor, though it did have one major drawback.

Early coal and petroleum-derived paraffin waxes had a very low melting point that was soon solved with the introduction of stearin. 

Even with all of the advances that came along during the 19th century, they weren't enough to prevent the rapid decline that hit the industry following the invention of the light bulb.

From then on candles have become more of a decorative item than a true household necessity. The 1990s saw a resurgence in the popularity of candles, leading to new types of candle waxes being developed, including a soybean wax which is softer and slower burning than paraffin. 

Candles Today

While it may be true that candles have definitely deviated from both their original forms and uses, they are still a staple in our daily lives.

Thanks to the creation of new wax blends candles today come in a wider variety of shapes, sizes, colors and even fragrances.

People across the globe now use votives in celebrations of all kinds, to provide the perfect mood lighting for romance, as decoration, and to bring reverence to ceremonies.

Though candles may now be mostly for enjoyment, none can deny their glow will always have a place in our lives.