Candles threw History
Illuminating the darkness was one of early man’s first concerns, along with finding a source for heat on cold dark nights.
Candles have been used for light and to illuminate man’s celebrations for more than 5,000 years, yet little is known about their origin.
It is often written that the first candles were developed by the Ancient Egyptians, who used rush lights or torches made by soaking the pithy core of reeds in melted animal fat. However, the rush lights had no wick like a true candle.
Gaining control of fire solved both the illumination and heat problems. Archeological records reveal that Paleolithic humans began to the creation and use of fire. It is speculated that by this period in history, early man had begun to use fire for cooking. Cooked foods, particularly meats, improved the diet of early humans, because fire released proteins in food. While fire was being used for cooking, our ancestors would have discovered the unique ability of animal fat to burn as a fuel. How often have we in modern times had to run out and douse a barbecue grill because grease has caught fire? Those who have ever cooked with grease in the kitchen are well aware of the quick ability of fat to burn. The precursor to candles would have been a torch or lamp.
A portable source of flame such as a greasy torch, in addition to a fire pit, would have provided a much more efficient method of lighting a cave. The candles of early man were plants, like reeds or grasses, in animal fat. Some have speculated that the soot caking the walls of the famous Paleolithic caves of France and Spain may have been caused by torchlight while the artists were creating the cave paintings. Others have hypothesized that the indentations in the cave walls were used as sconces to hold the torches. Soot was a common drawback to the use of animal fat for lighting. Things would not improve until the modern era.
The Egyptians have been credited for both the inventive use of soaking pithy reeds in animal fats for “rush lights”, and the early use of beeswax. With the archeological finds of Egypt and the Mediterranean countries of early candle and oil lamp use, illumination took on a whole new religious significance. A light in the darkness became hope for the ancients. The Egyptians were using wicked candles in 3,000 B.C., but the ancient Romans are generally credited with developing the wicked candle before that time by dipping rolled papyrus repeatedly in melted tallow or beeswax. The resulting candles were used to light their homes, to aid travelers at night, and in religious ceremonies.
Historians have found evidence that many other early civilizations developed wicked candles using waxes made from available plants and insects.
Early Chinese candles are said to have been molded in paper tubes, using rolled rice paper for the wick, and wax from an indigenous insect that was combined with seeds. The earliest surviving candles originated in China around 200 BC, and were made from whale fat. The Chinese extracted oils from the seeds of the tallow tree for this purpose. Also in Asia, wax was derived from insects called “Cocus” as well as plant oils, and molded into paper tubes. As ancient man became aware of the uses for, and methods of, deriving oils from animals and plants, he was also learning about herbs, spices and fragrance, all of which was later to develop into the spice and oil trade.
In Japan, candles were made of wax extracted from tree nuts, while in India; candle wax was made by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree.
It is also known that candles played an important role in early religious ceremonies.
Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights which centers on the lighting of candles, dates back to 165 B.C. There are several Biblical references to candles, and the Emperor Constantine is reported to have called for the use of candles during an Easter service in the 4th century. As early as 3000 BC, beeswax candles looking pretty much the same as our beeswax candles do today-cone shaped and with a reed as a wick, have been found placed in tombs of rulers.
Romans quickly adopted and improved the methods of candle making, adding a “wick” of woven fibers. Romans used these “candles” to illuminate their homes and places of worship. Although many ancient cultures also used clay type oil lamps for illumination, the principles were the same, a “wick” usually made of flax to hold the flame and “fuel” of animal fat, plant oils (such as olive oil) or beeswax. The word “candle” comes to us from the Latin candere, meaning “to shine.”
Although there is more information readily available for the Mediterranean civilizations, people all over the world had a history of illumination. In India, was made from boiling cinnamon and skimming the remaining wax to make candles for temple use.
European candles of antiquity were made from various forms of natural fat, tallow, and wax. In Ancient Rome, candles were made of tallow due to the prohibitive cost of beeswax. It is possible that they also existed in Ancient Greece, but imprecise terminology makes it difficult to determine.
In India, there was a ban on the use of animal fat candles in temples. On the other side of the world, native people were also using things like Jojoba nuts for oil, and learning how to use shrubs like the wax myrtle, bayberries. Animals were also discovered to have oily wax content, and Native Americans made use of “candlefish” (a very oily species of fish) which could be threaded with a wick impaled on forked stick and used as a torch.
Light symbolism of many of the ancient pagan religions included that of the Ancient Hebrews. In the Temple of Jerusalem, God occupied the Holy of Holies as a cloud of light. Oil and light figure heavily in the Chanukah story of “everlasting flames” on the sacred menorah. When Hellenistic Greeks seized control of the Temple, the defending Jews regained control and rededicated their Temple. There was but one vial of precious oil to keep the sacred flame lit, which would have burned for only one day. Instead of only one day, however, it lasted a miraculous eight days…long enough to allow the Jews to make more oil. Modern celebrations of Chanukah have replaced the ancient oil menorah with candles, in celebration of the miracle of those eight days.
The menorah of nine branches holds a candle for each day, with a ninth branch f In the Middle Ages in Europe, tallow candles were the most common candle. By the 13th century, candle making had become a guild craft in England and France. The candle makers (chandlers) went from house to house making candles from the kitchen fats saved for that purpose, or made and sold their own candles from small candle shops. Beeswax, compared to animal-based tallow, burned cleanly, without smoky flame. Rather than the foul and terrible odor of tallow, it emits a fresh smell. Beeswax candles were expensive, and relatively few people could afford to burn them in their homes in medieval Europe. However, they were widely used for church ceremonies.
In the 18th century, spermaceti, oil produced by the sperm whale, was used to produce a superior candle. Late in the 18th century, colza oil and rapeseed oil came into use as much cheaper substitutes. Or the Shamash or “servant” light.
Early Christianity shunned the use of lights, because of the popularity of honoring the divine with light was viewed as pagan. Indeed, the Greek funeral custom was to accompany the dead with torchlight or candlelight so that the soul of the dying could not be seized by demons. Many church leaders in the first three centuries of Christianity spoke openly about the disdain they had for candles and lights. At this time Rome also had a competing salvation religion that centered on the Egyptian goddess, Isis. The followers of Isis kept her temple lamps lit at all hours, both day and night, to symbolize constant hope. Despite the fact that Christ called himself the “Light of the World,” the early Christians resisted adopting anything obliquely seen as pagan into their religion. At the turn of the third century, Tertullian is credited with saying “on days of rejoicing, we do not…encroach upon the daylight with lamps.” However, those who converted still celebrated with lights. They simply adapted their pagan ways and lit the darkness in celebration of the new religion. When the frustrated church leaders met at the Spanish council, the Synod of Elvira in 305, Lactanius, scoffed, “They kindle lights,” he said of the pagans, “as though to one who is in darkness. Can he be thought sane who offers the light of lamps and candles to the Author and Giver of all light?”
The early Christian leaders were upset about the multitude of candles being used, and condemned it as an abuse of superstition to burn them during the daytime in cemeteries. Evidently, the new Christians were lighting candles in memory of their dead loved ones. The people loved candle lighting so much they did not want to give it up. They continued to do what was labeled as a “folk custom” by church leaders – lighting candles for the dead at funerals and, of course, in the catacombs of Rome. Vigilantius made it a reproach against the orthodox to light candles while the sun was still shining. Finally, due to the efforts of Saint Jerome and Constantine (who reportedly changed day into night with “pillars of wax”), cooler heads prevailed towards the end of the third century, and candle lighting became an integral part of the church. Although Saint Jerome thought it wrong for the pagans to light candles for their gods, he saw nothing wrong with people using candles to celebrate joy. As long as believers were lighting their candles for the presence of God, everlasting life and hope, Saint Jerome was supportive, and finally candles and lights became part of the early Roman church. In fact, the church became quite stringent about candle usage by the time of the fourth century, putting forth guidelines on candles and their functions for the various services provided by the church.
New symbolism of candles and flames emerged to coincide with the church beliefs. Primarily the focus was on beeswax symbolizing the virgin mother, the wick symbolizing the soul of Jesus Christ, and the flame representing the Divinity which absorbs and dominates both. By the twelfth century candles had become the norm in churches, rather than oil lamps. The word ceremony comes from the Latin word cermonius, meaning “the person who carries a wax candle at public rituals”. Pope Gelasius in the fifth century established a feast day called Candle mas, during which all of the church’s candles were blessed, though the blessing of the candles did not come into common use until the eleventh century. In Dorset shire England, the custom of giving the poorer tradesmen a large candle at Candle mas continued up until this century.
Most early Western cultures relied primarily on candles rendered from animal fat (tallow). A major improvement came in the Middle Ages, when beeswax candles were introduced in Europe. Unlike animal-based tallow, beeswax burned pure and cleanly, without producing a smoky flame. It also emitted a pleasant sweet smell rather than the foul, acrid odor of tallow. Beeswax candles were widely used for church ceremonies, but because they were expensive, few individuals other than the wealthy could afford to burn them in the home.
Tallow candles were the common household candle for Europeans, and by the 13th century, candle making had become a guild craft in England and France. The candle makers (chandlers) went from house to house making candles from the kitchen fats saved for that purpose, or made and sold their own candles from small candle shops.
Colonial women offered America’s first contribution to candlemaking, when they discovered that boiling the grayish-green berries of bayberry bushes produced a sweet-smelling wax that burned cleanly. However, extracting the wax from the bayberries was extremely tedious. As a result, the popularity of bayberry candles soon diminished.
The growth of the whaling industry in the late 18th century brought the first major change in candle making since the Middle Ages, when spermaceti — a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil — became available in quantity. Like beeswax, the spermaceti wax did not elicit a repugnant odor when burned, and produced a significantly brighter light. It also was harder than either tallow or beeswax, so it wouldn’t soften or bend in the summer heat. Historians note that the first “standard candles” were made from spermaceti wax.
Most of the major developments impacting contemporary candle making occurred during the 19th century. In the 1820s, French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul discovered how to extract stearic acid from animal fatty acids. This led to the development of stearin wax, which was hard, durable and burned cleanly. Stearin candles remain popular in Europe today.
In 1834, inventor Joseph Morgan helped to further the modern-day candle industry by developing a machine that allowed for continuous production of molded candles by using a cylinder with a movable piston to eject candles as they solidified. With the introduction of mechanized production, candles became an easily affordable commodity for the masses.
Paraffin wax was introduced in the 1850s, after chemists learned how to efficiently separate the naturally-occurring waxy substance from petroleum and refine it. Odorless and bluish-white in color, paraffin was a boon to candle making because it burned cleanly, consistently and was more economical to produce than any other candle fuel. Its only disadvantage was a low melting point. This was soon overcome by adding the harder stearic acid, which had become widely available. With the introduction of the light bulb in 1879, candle making began to decline.
Candles enjoyed renewed popularity during the first half of the 20th century, when the growth of U.S. oil and meatpacking industries brought an increase in the byproducts that had become the basic ingredients of candles – paraffin and stearic acid. The popularity of candles remained steady until the mid-1980s, when interest in candles as decorative items, mood-setters and gifts began to increase notably. Candles were suddenly available in a broad array of sizes, shapes and colors, and consumer interest in scented candles began to escalate.
The 1990s witnessed an unprecedented surge in the popularity of candles, and for the first time in more than a century, new types of candle waxes were being developed. In the U.S., agricultural chemists began to develop soybean wax, a softer and slower burning wax than paraffin. On the other side of the globe, efforts were underway to develop palm wax for use in candles.
Candles have come a long way since their initial use. Although no longer man’s major source of light, they continue to grow in popularity and use. Today, candles symbolize celebration, mark romance, soothe the senses, define ceremony, and accent home decors — casting a warm and lovely glow for all to enjoy.