Candles have cast a light on man's progress for centuries. However,
there is very little known about the origin of candles. Although it is
often written that the Ancient Egyptians who used rush lights, or
torches, made by soaking the pithy core of reeds in molten tallow,
developed the first candles the rush lights had no wick like a candle.
It is the Romans who are credited with developing the wick candle,
using it to aid travelers at dark, and lighting homes and places of
worship at night.
Like the early Egyptians, the Roman's relied on tallow, gathered
from cattle or sheep suet, as the principal ingredient of candles. It
was not until the Middle Ages when
Beeswax, a substance secreted by honey bees to make their
honeycombs, was introduced.
Beeswax candles were a marked improvement over those made
with tallow, for they did not produce a smoky flame, or emit an acrid
odor when burned. Instead, beeswax candles burned pure and clean.
However, they were expensive, and, therefore, only the wealthy could
Colonial women offered America's first contribution to candle
making when they discovered that boiling the grayish green berries of
bayberry bushes produced a sweet-smelling wax that burned clean.
However, extracting the wax from the bayberries was extremely tedious.
As a result, the popularity of bayberry candles soon diminished.
The growth of the whaling industry in the late 18th century brought
the first major change in candle making since the Middle Ages, when
spermaceti, a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil, became
available in quantity. Like
Beeswax, the spermaceti wax did not elicit a repugnant odor
when burned. Furthermore, spermaceti wax was found harder than both
Beeswax. It did not soften or bend in
the summer heat. Historians note that the first "standard candles"
were made from spermaceti wax.
It was during the 19th century when most major developments
affecting contemporary candle making occurred. In 1834, inventor
Joseph Morgan introduced a machine, which allowed continuous
production of molded candles by the use of a cylinder, which featured
a movable piston that ejected candles as they solidified.
Further developments in candle making occurred in 1850 with the
production of paraffin wax made from oil and coal shales. Processed by
distilling the residues left after crude petroleum was refined, the
bluish-white wax was found to burn cleanly, and with no unpleasant
odor. Of greatest significance was its cost - paraffin wax was more
economical to produce than any preceding candle fuel developed. And
while paraffin's low melting point may have posed a threat to its
popularity, the discovery of stearic acid solved this problem. Hard
and durable, stearic acid was being produced in quantity by the end of
the 19th century. By this period, most candles being manufactured
consisted of paraffin and stearic acid.
With the introduction of the light bulb in 1879, candle making
declined until the turn of the century when a renewed popularity for
Candle manufacturing was further enhanced during the first half of
the 20th century through the growth of U.S. oil and meatpacking
industries. With the increase of crude oil and meat production, also
came an increase in the by-products that are the basic ingredients of
contemporary candles paraffin and stearic acid.
No longer man's major source of light, candles continue to grow in
popularity and use. Today, candles symbolize celebration, mark
romance, define ceremony, and accent decor — continuing to cast a warm
glow for all to enjoy.