Candles have existed for thousands of years, but most people don’t know much about them. Many historians say the earliest use of candles took place in Ancient Egypt. But these weren’t your typical wicked candles. It was more like a small torch that formed by taking the dried pith of a rush plant and soaking it in animal fat. The appearance of wick candles is generally credited to Ancient Rome. They dipped rolled papyrus in melted animal fat or beeswax until a candle formed. There is strong evidence that shows wicked candles had been developed in many other early civilizations as well. China is said to have used wicks made from rolled rice paper, and wax made from a combination of insects and seeds. India made candle wax by boiling the fruit of a cinnamon tree. In Japan, candles were made of wax extracted from tree nuts. It is also said that candles played an important part in early religious ceremonies. Such as Hanukah as far back as 165 B.C. and Easter services in the 4th century.
Early western cultures relied mostly on candles made from animal fat, also known as tallow. But as you can imagine, these candles smelled pretty terrible. In the Middle Ages, a huge improvement in the production of candles occurred in Europe when beeswax candles were introduced. Not only did this cut down on the smoke produced from tallow candles, but it improved the overall smell and air quality. The only problem was, these sweet smelling beeswax candles were much more expensive than tallow candles. This meant they were most commonly found in churches and the homes of the wealthy. There weren’t many individuals who could afford to burn beeswax candles. Therefore tallow candles remained the most common household candle for Europeans during this time. By the 13th century, candle making had become a popular craft in places like France and England. The candlemakers would visit homes to make candles for people who had saved animal fats up for this purpose. They would also make and sell candles at local markets and shops.
In Colonial times, women were the candle makers here in America. They produced these sweet smelling, clean burning candles by boiling the berries of a bayberry bush. However, extracting the wax from the bayberries was a difficult and tedious task that caused the popularity of bayberry candles to diminish. What took the place of bayberry candles were candles made from sperm whale oil. The waling industry was booming in the late 18th century, and sperm whale oil was available in abundance. The wax was crated by crystalizing the sperm whale oil, known as Spermaceti wax. This wax, much like beeswax, did not release any nasty odor when burned, it was a harder wax, and it produced a much a brighter light.
The biggest improvements in candle making came in the 19th century. These developments had the largest impact on contemporary candle making. A French chemist named Michel Eugene Chevreul discovered that he could extract stearic acid from animal fatty acids to develop stearin wax in the 1820s. Stearin wax is a durable, hard, clean burning wax that has remained a popular wax for candle making in Europe today. Inventor Joseph Morgan brought further developments to modern day candle making by creating a machine that could produce candles continuously in 1834. This invention made candles affordable to the masses. Shortly after, in the 1850s, Paraffin wax was discovered when chemists learned how to separate a naturally occurring waxy substance from petroleum and refine it. This quickly became the most economical type of candle that existed. However, in 1879 the invention of the lightbulb took place, causing the production of candles to decline. In the 20th century, candles became popular again and remained popular through the mid 1980s. By this point, the interest in candles as a decorative item, ambiance enhancer, and gift, increased significantly. They then became available in a wide range of sizes, colors, shapes and scents. The 1990s were an even more popular decade for candles. For the first time in more than 100 years, new candle waxes were being developed. The U.S. began to produce soy wax, while other parts of the world had began developing palm wax for candles.
Today, candle sales are at an all time high. And there are more candle wax options available than ever. Many of them are healthier alternatives to waxes like paraffin. Soy wax, beeswax, and coconut wax to name a few. Candles are a modern day home decor staple, but they are still used for many other things as well. Such as celebrations, religious services, a method of relaxation, odor neutralizers, and more. And their popularity is only expected to grow in the years to come.