Candles have cast a light on man's progress for centuries. However, there is very little known about the origin of candles. Although it is often written that the first candles were developed by the Ancient Egyptians who used rushlights, or torches, made by soaking the pithy core of reeds in molten tallow, the rushlights had no wick like a candle. It is the Romans who are credited with developing the wick candle, using it to aid travelers at dark, and lighting homes and places of worship at night.
Like the early Egyptians, the Roman's relied on tallow, gathered from cattle or sheep suet, as the principal ingredient of candles. It was not until the Middle Ages when beeswax, a substance secreted by honey bees to make their honeycombs, was introduced. Beeswax candles were a marked improvement over those made with tallow, for they did not produce a smoky flame, or emit an acrid odor when burned. Instead, beeswax candles burned pure and clean. However, they were expensive, and, therefore, only the wealthy could afford them.
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 clean. 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 candlemaking 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. Furthermore, spermaceti wax was found harder than both tallow and beeswax. It did not soften or bend in the summer heat. Historians note that the first "standard candles" were made from spermaceti wax.
It was during the 19th century when most major developments affecting contemporary candlemaking occurred. In 1834, inventor Joseph Morgan introduced a machine which allowed continuous production of molded candles by the use of a cylinder which featured a movable piston that ejected candles as they solidified.
Further developments in candlemaking occurred in 1850 with the production of paraffin wax made from oil and coal shales. Processed by distilling the residues left after crude petroleum was refined, the bluish-white wax was found to burn cleanly, and with no unpleasant odor. Of greatest significance was its cost - paraffin wax was more economical to produce than any preceding candle fuel developed. And while paraffin's low melting point may have posed a threat to its popularity, the discovery of stearic acid solved this problem. Hard and durable, stearic acid was being produced in quantity by the end of the 19th century. By this period, most candles being manufactured consisted of paraffin and stearic acid.
With the introduction of the light bulb in 1879, candlemaking declined until the turn of the century when a renewed popularity for candles emerged.
Candle manufacturing was further enhanced during the first half of the 20th century through the growth of U.S. oil and meatpacking industries. With the increase of crude oil and meat production, also came an increase in the by-products that are the basic ingredients of contemporary candles paraffin and stearic acid.
No longer man's major source of light, candles continue to grow in popularity and use. Today, candles symbolize celebration, mark romance, define ceremony, and accent decor — continuing to cast a warm glow for all to enjoy!