It is hard to imagine the world of early candlelight. With it's wide variety of materials, the hundreds of years with few or no technological breakthroughs and the fact that the match was not invented until 1827.
Early candles were made of vegetable waxes produced from plants such as bayberries, candelilla leaves, Candletree bark, Esparto grass, and various of palm leaves such as, Carnauba and Ouricury. Candles were also made of animal tissue and secretions, such as, Spermaceti (whale oil), Ambergris, and beeswax. Sometimes entire animals such as the Stormy Petrel and the Candlefish of the Pacific Northwest were threaded with a wick and burned as candles.
Tallow candles were made of sheep, cow, or pig fat, all those candles were rather rude, time-consuming to make, and smoky. Of the two kinds of candle fuel, beeswax was considered the better product as it burned clearer than tallow and had a lovely odor compared to tallow's rancid, smoky burn. Being scarce, beeswax was much more expensive, only churches and the wealthy could afford beeswax candles. In fact, church rules insisted on beeswax candles because of the belief that bees were blessed by the Almighty. It was ordered that mass be performed by the light of wax made by bees. Even during the day, as they represented spiritual joy.
Early chandlers dipped wicks into melted wax or poured wax over wicks repeatedly until a think coating built up. In the fifteenth century, wooden molds were developed, but they could not be used for beeswax because it was to sticky to release from wooden surfaces. The molded candlemaking method did make the process of forming tallow candles much easier, however, tallow candles became more available and affordable, still candles burned quickly and there wicks had to be continuously trimmed to prevent smoking.
By the seventeenth century, European state edicts controlled the weight, size, and cost of candles. In 1709, an act of the English Parliament banned the making of candles at home unless a license was purchased and a tax paid. Rushlights, made bt dipping rushes or reeds in suet, were excluded from the tax and became the cheapest form of lighting. But, surprisingly, many peasants still bought the more expensive candles because their improverishment meant less meat-and less suet-in their duet.
The nineteenth century finally brought with it a burst of new discoveries and inventions that revolutionized the candle industry and made lighting available to all. In the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, a process was developed to refine tallow with alkali and sulfuric acid. The result was a product called stearin.
Stearin is harder and burns longer than unrefined tallow's. This breakthough meant tallow candles could be made without the usual smoke and rancid odor. Stearins were also derived from palm oils, so vegetable waxes, as well as animal fats could be used to make candles. Also in the nineteenth century, a method was developed for braiding wick fibers. The caused them to bend over and away from candle flames, where they would burn to ash and eliminate the need for the constant snuffing, or trimming of a candles wick. Chemical treatments were developed for wick fibers that made them less flammable, so candles would burn longer and more efficiently. Matches, which were invented in 1827 using poisonous phosphorus, improved by the end of the century, eliminating the need for sparking with flint, steel, and tinder, or for keeping a fire burning 24 hours a day. But probably most important of all paraffin was refined from oil around 1850, making petroleum-based candles possible. The combination of paraffin with new wick technologies developed in the nineteenth century, revolutionized the candles industry, giving us the tools and materials we still use for candle manufacturing.
While candlemaking materials improved, however, Kerosene became popular as a less expensive and readily available replacement for whale oil lamp fuel. Lamps became the preferred source of artificial light. Nowadays, candles are used predominantly for romatic atmosphere, during power outages, and in spiritual and religeous notions.
The Chemical History of a Candle- An Entertaining Introduction to Chemistry
"The Chemical History of a Candle" was the title of a series of lectures on the chemistry and physics of flames given by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution. This was the origin of the Christmas lectures for young people that are still given there every year and bear his name. The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been held in London annually since 1825. They serve as a forum for presenting complex scientific issues to young people in an informative and entertaining manner.