The Evolution of Candles
For thousands of years, before modern electrical lighting systems were developed, candles existed not for decoration but for the sole purpose of providing artificial light in millions of homes.
Here’s a brief history of how the candle making industry flourished, declined and regained its prominence through the years.
• The Ancient Times
During the ancient civilisation, candles were made from tallow, or animal fat, extracted from cattle and sheep. The first candles were developed by the ancient Egyptians. These candles, known as rushlights or torches, had no wicks and burned slowly. The Romans were credited for the first creation of candles with wicks, the ones that resembled the candles that are used today.
Many other early civilisations developed wicked candles with the use of waxes extracted from various plants and insects. The Chinese made candles from moulded paper tubes, using a rolled rice paper for the wick and wax taken from seeds and indigenous insects. The Japanese also made candles from waxes derived from tree nuts, while the Indians made candle waxes by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree.
• The Middle Ages
The candle making process improved during the Middle Ages when beeswax were introduced as an alternative to tallow. The beeswax, unlike the animal-based tallow, burned without producing smoke. It also emitted a sweet pleasant smell compared to the foul odour released by burning tallow. Beeswax candles were popularly used for religious events and celebrations, but because they were expensive, only the clergy and the upper class could afford to burn them. From the Middle Ages to the 13th century, tallow candles remained the most common light source used all over Europe due to the high cost of beeswax candles.
• The 15th to 18th Centuries
During the 15th century, American settlers discovered that boiling the greyish-green berries of the bayberry produced a sweet-smelling wax. However, extracting the wax from the bayberries proved laborious. As a result, the business of making bayberry candles gradually declined and was replaced by sperm candles made from whale oil during the height of the whaling industry.
It was in the late 18th century that the business of candle making with the use of the spermaceti, a wax obtained by crystallising sperm whale oil, significantly flourished. The spermaceti wax, like beeswax, burned clearly and do not produce foul, acrid odour. Also, the light being generated was significantly brighter compared to the ones emitted by tallow and beeswax.
• The 19th Century
In the 1820s, French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul discovered a way to extract stearic acid from...