Looking at the variety of candles available today – from sophisticated dining room tapers to multi-colored candles of all shapes and sizes, it is hard to imagine that candles are believed to have been first used by the Ancient Egyptians around 3000 years BC. At that time, however, they bore little resemblance to the candles that we are familiar with. These early candles were more like flaming torches, made of reed and tallow – a substance similar to suet.
Although the Romans did use tallow torches, they are also given credit for developing the first wick candles. Primarily, these were found in temples and other places of worship, but richer households were also able to obtain them for domestic use.
The word candle itself actually derives from the Latin ‘Candere’, meaning to flicker or glitter. And flicker they most certainly did! Tallow was smoky and acrid and burned poorly, so when the first beeswax candles were introduced during the Middle Ages, it was a major advance. Beeswax candles burn steadily and do not give off unpleasant aromas. Unfortunately, during their early years, they were very labor-intensive to produce, making them too expensive for any but the richest people to afford.
It took until the nineteenth century for major steps to be taken in the development of candle making. In 1825, a Frenchman called Cambacers produced a braided wick that finally solved the problem of erratic burning. With one thread tighter than the others, a braided wick gradually trims itself to the correct length as it burns. Prior to this, candles had a single wick which often burned unevenly, making it necessary for them to be snuffed regularly – sometimes as often as every 30 minutes.
Although this new form of wick meant that candles produced were now far more efficient, candle makers were still limited in the number of candles they could produce. Each candle had to be made by hand – a time consuming process. Yet, as with so many traditional crafts in the 19th century, candle making was transformed with the industrial revolution. In 1834, Joseph Morgan invented a machine that could produce molded candles at a rate of around 1,500 an hour. This mass production of candles meant that for the first time, they became a common household commodity.
Perhaps the greatest development however, was the introduction of paraffin wax – a by-product of crude petroleum, as an alternative to beeswax. Like beeswax, the blue tinged white paraffin wax burns cleanly and without any unpleasant aroma. Paraffin wax has on major advantage over beeswax – it is considerably cheaper to produce and buy.
Inevitably, with the coming of electricity, the requirement for candles as a household necessity began to diminish. Although more remote regions may still rely on candles as their promary source of light, those in the developed world would generally view candles as attractive accessories, used mainly for ornamental or relaxation aids.
Having said that, there can be few households, even in today’s electricity- dependent societies without a few candles tucked away in case of power cuts!
With candles playing such an important role through life, it is little wonder that there are numerous references to them in literature. Shakespeare often utilised candle metaphors, and one particularly famous example appears in Macbeth, where the burning down of the candle represents the brief passage of time.