Candles Light Up Our Lives
What is Christmas—or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa—without candles flickering in the night? Light is, after all, the midwinter wish of mankind. Those of us who celebrate Advent begin with candles as a symbol of hope. Candles in the window to welcome weary travelers are my own favorite holiday decoration. Menorahs light many homes for eight nights. Recent years have brought us the scented candle, filling our houses with cinnamon and cloves without the effort of baking or pine without the mess of dragging in the real thing. I recently finished writing the story of a candle maker, eking out his business in Bath in 1815, so of course I had to research this most gentle and beloved of holiday items.
The history of candles is a long one! Examples have been found dated to 3000 BC. The Old Testament makes numerous references to candle holders in worship. Though the words probably weren’t written down until the 7th or 8th century BC they testify to the long history of candles for lighting and religious practice.
By the end of the 18th century England had four sources of lighting in homes. The most basic were rush lights, which consisted in the dried inner core of rush plants soaked in grease or oil. They were smoky but did the job.
The poorer families also used tallow candles, made with fat from slaughtered cows or sheep. The same fat might be used for those rush lights, but tallow candles had a wick and burned more slowly. They also smoked and smelled, and were, by most accounts, horrid. They used very thick wicks to produce sufficient light and had to be trimmed often while in use. They could be made at home, as rush lights certainly were, or bought from a chandler.
Folks in the growing middle class and urban areas in the 19th century would have bought their candles. A candle-works in any town could make a prosperous living supplying local demand. Tallow candles could be hand dipped one by one, a rather laborious process since they had to be dipped and dried repeatedly to build up to a useable size, but machines that enabled the dipping of dozens at once made candle production commercially viable. They could also be mass-produced by pouring fat or wax into molds.
Beeswax candles burned more cleanly, smelled delightful, and lasted longer. They also employed a daintier wick that did not need to be trimmed. However, beeswax candles cost much more; only the wealthiest families could afford them. Up until the first quarter of the 1800s it was extremely difficult to extract wax from bees without destroying the hive. Straw skeps and even wooden hives were of the burned or crushed to extract the honey and retrieve the wax. The invention of the moveable frame in 1814 ultimately led to the process employed today in which beekeepers uncap honeycomb and extract the honey by centrifugal force, enabling the comb to be cleanly removed or reused by the bees. Beeswax would never be an abundant commodity.
Even the wealthy probably used candles sparingly given the price. A spectacular example of affluence, however, was the lighting for the Assembly Rooms in Bath. A purpose-built facility for entertainment, the building housed a card room, a ballroom, a tea room, and the Octagon Room for cards, music, or other entertainments. The rooms were lit by a set of nine chandeliers. Eight of them required forty candles each. The ninth, in the Octagon room, required forty-eight. That is a total of 368 candles. These brightly lit entertainments attracted the cream of society (although by the Regency period, Bath was no longer a first tier destination for the highest of society). Nevertheless, the Assembly Rooms required the best. Since w A 12 inch beeswax taper burns about twelve hours, and at best they would have to be replaced every other night, the cost of lighting the chandeliers with beeswax must have been astronomical.
Oil lamps also existed, of course, and oil lighting was particularly important in North America as the whaling industry grew. By the mid 1700s, another option came into common use for candles. The oil from the head of sperm whales turned out to be superior other forms of whale oil and could be processed into a wax called spermaceti. It was easily formed into candles, burned clean, produced no odor, and gave off a bright light. Abundantly available due to the exploding United States whaling industry, it also cost significantly less than beeswax. Spermaceti or “whale’s candles” quickly became the standard for candles.
Candles competed with oil lamps, and, as the 19th century progressed, they competed with gas lamps as well. Ultimately electricity became the primary source of ordinary lighting. Still, there’s something about candlelight as any romantic knows, and they remain a significant part of midwinter holiday celebrations of all kinds.
“Bedlington Candle-works,” on Sixtownships & Coal Mining Memories UK, http://www.sixtownships.org.uk/old-candleworks.html
“Chandeliers,” on Fashion Museum Bath, https://www.fashionmuseum.co.uk/chandeliers
Dell, Sue, “Let There Be Light! Candles in the time of Jane Austen,” on Jane Austen’s House Museum, January 12, 2016, https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/single-post/2016/1/12/Let-there-be-light-Candles-in-the-time-of-Jane-Austen
Irwin, Emily, “The Spermaceti Candle and the American Whaling Industry,” in Historia: A Journal of the Epsilon Mu Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta and the Eastern Illinois University History Department, 2012 https://www.eiu.edu/historia/2012Irwin.pdf,
Caroline Warfield is a writer of family centered romance deeply embedded in nineteenth century history across the globe. She always nudges her characters to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. She just finished a novella about a candle-works in Bath in 1815 and is currently working on a romance involving the woman who is a healer and an Englishman who wants glory as an Egyptologist set against the conflicts between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire in 1838-1841. You can find her here: