A Short History of Candles

  • 3000 to 1 BC

    • Ancient Egyptians used rushlight or torches, made by soaking pithy core of reeds in molten tallow.
    • Later Egyptians and Romans made candles from tallow (animal fat), which was extracted from cattle and sheep.
    • Tallow was melted to its liquid form and poured over fibers of flax, hemp or cotton, which was used as wick.
    • The Chinese Qin Dynasty made candles from whale fat.
    • Japanese used extracts from the trees to make candle wax.
    • Indians boiled the fruit of the cinnamon tree for candle wax.
  • 1 to 1500 AD

    • A fish called Eulachon or "Candlefish", a type of smelt, was discovered by the indigenous people between Oregon and Alaska, who used oil from this fish for illumination.
    • Tibetans used Yak butter for candles.
    • During 618 - 907 A.D. the Tang Dynasty was using beeswax.
    • Around 848 A.D. candle clocks were invented. There were lines around the candle to show the passing of each hour.
    • Around the 12th century, candles were derived from the Cossos pella insect which was mixed with seed and wrapped with paper.
    • Candlemaking as we know it today began in the 13th century, when traveling chandlers would go from door to door making dipped tapers out of tallow or beeswax.
    • Molds were introduced for candlemaking in the 15th century, Paris, France.
  • 1500 -1799 AD

    • During the Middle Ages beeswax was extracted and candles were made much in the way the Romans did, by melting it to its liquid form.
    • Beeswax is a substance secreted by honeybees to make their honeycombs. It was discovered that it did not produce a smoky flame, or emit a foul odor when burned. However, beeswax was not readily available, which made it an expensive method of lighting. Only the wealthy could afford it.
    • Tallow was still the cheaper method of lighting, even though it was smoky and had a foul odor to it.
    • Early Settlers in Colonial America discovered that boiling the berries from the bayberry shrub would produce a sweet smelling wax. It was very tedious work yielding 2-4 pounds of wax to a bushel basket of bayberries.
    • During the late 18th Century the whaling industry was thriving. Whale oil (Spermaceti) was available in large quantities and was used instead of tallow, beeswax or bayberry.
  • 1800 AD to Present

    • By the 19th Century the first patented candlemaking machine was invented.
    • Braided wick was introduced in 1825. This new wick was tightly plaited and when burned was completely consumed. Previous to this time wick had been made by twisting strands of cotton, which burned poorly.
    • Manufactured paraffin was introduced in 1850, which provided a cheaper alternative to tallow.
    • The light bulb was introduced in 1879, which led to the decline of candlemaking.