Candles. Lovely, warm pillars of luminescence. These days they are much more for decorative purposes than actual light sources, but some of you reading may remember the days of power cuts and rifling in the ‘random drawer’ and then cursing that someone hasn’t stored the matches next to them!
For thousands of years humans have relied on man made light sources to get us through the long nights and dark days. But how exactly did we see in the dark, millennia before electricity was harnessed?
The Ancient Egyptians had an early form of candle called a rushlight, but these were more like torches than actual candles. Reeds would have been bound together and soaked in animal fat to create a medium that would burn. We imagine they’d also be quite smelly!
Similarly, the Greeks had oil lamps that burned with a wick, but these were made of liquid and kept in a container, instead of being a set medium in their own right. The earliest surviving examples of actual candles comes from the Roman Empire, circa 500BCE and these were dipped fabric in tallow that would have set hard and burnt with a wick in the centre. If you’re wondering what tallow is, we’re still on animal fat, so again, not the nicest of scents around your home!
There is evidence to suggest beeswax was also being used in candle making as early as 200BCE in China, but it would take until the early Medieval period to catch on in Europe, and even then, only for the very wealthy and the clergy. Beeswax burns very cleanly and has almost no scent at all, but the common candle would have still been made with tallow, making it safe to assume the smell of burning animal fat has been a staple of human existence for thousands of years!
Fast forward to the 18thcentury and a new material was being used commercially. It had virtually no smell, was cheap to buy and burnt with a clean, bright flame – spermaceti. This wonder wax may sound almost medical in nature, but it actually came from whales, specifically an oil found in the space of their heads to help with buoyancy. The burgeoning whale trade was an ideal set up for candle making and spermaceti was being imported by the barrel load. The wax would set hard once extracted and a single whale could product 500 gallons. Obviously, this material comes at a price and commercial whaling was regulated in 1930s, with countries only participating in modern times as a food source.
The next jump in candle manufacture came in the 1850s with the discovery of paraffin wax. Today, paraffin candles make up 60% of the market and will probably be found in your own home. Candle making boomed with this new discovery and one company, Prices, are still making candles in this way nearly 200 years later!