Candles: History and Perspective

Feb 2


Janet K. Nelson

Janet K. Nelson

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Candles have played both a functional and cultural role in societies since ancient times. This article examines the evolution and enduring expansion of the roles candles play in our lives.



What role do candles play in your life? Since they were first invented,Candles: History and Perspective Articles their role in human societies continues to diversify. In the beginning, it was all about light. Of course, the meaning of light is as diverse as it is essential to our existence. A candle may play a different role in your life today, tomorrow or the next day. Just how profoundly have candles affected human development functionally, culturally and spiritually?

Retail sails for candles in the U.S. for 2001 were approximately 2.3 billion dollars. Candles are used in seven out of 10 U.S. households. The majority of candle consumers burn candles between one and three times per week and burn one to two candles at a time. There are over 300 known commercial manufacturers of candles in the U.S. alone. These statistics are provided by the National Candle Association (NCA –

What elements constitute or define a candle? The essential elements of early candles were a wick, fuel and container or mount. Aromatherapy and colorants have become common editions to most modern candles. Candles have been used for thousands of years but until the 20th century, their essential and primary purpose was to provide artificial light. Today, the applications for candles are so broad and diverse; they have become an integral part of our everyday lives. Reference:


It is fair to assume that controlling and capturing fire to produce artificial light on demand has been an obsession since early man first discovered fire. The first known records of this process begin with the ancient Egyptians. Clay candle holders dating from the 4th century B.C. have been found in Egypt. Egyptians eventually used rush lights or torches. They made these torches by soaking the pithy core of reeds in molten tallow. Tallow is the fatty tissue or suet of animals. The tallow of cattle and sheep was routinely used because it became hard. There was no wick involved in these early candles.


The people of the Roman Empire were the first to use candle wicks. They melted tallow to a very liquid state and poured it over flax, hemp or cotton fiber which created a wick. These candles provided artificial light for utilitarian purposes and were also used in religious ceremonies. There were two primary problems with the use of tallow. It produced both a terrible odor and smoke. Tallow did not burn cleanly.


Early Asian cultures extracted wax from insects (coccos pella) and seeds and then molded it in tube containers of plant paper. The Japanese extracted wax from tree nuts to create candles. In China, beeswax was used during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.).


Early Indian cultures extracted wax from boiling cinnamon and created tapered candles. These candles were used in Indian Temples.

Middle Ages

By this time, beeswax had been discovered. Although harder to acquire, this was a great improvement because the beeswax produced a subtle sweet smell and burned cleanly. These candles were highly valued by the clergy and upper classes that were among those who could access/afford them.

North America

In the first century A.D., Native Americans burned oily fish that were called candlefish. Missionaries that eventually settled the southwestern United States boiled bark from the Cerio tree to extract wax for candle making. Colonial women in New England discovered they could boil the grayish green berries of bayberry bushes and extract wax. This was a difficult and tedious process but the bayberry wax burned sweetly and cleanly. In the late eighteenth century, the whaling industry developed. Spermaceti wax, a whale product that had a mild odor and was harder than both tallow and beeswax made candles available to more people. Many historians claim that the first “standard candles” were made using spermaceti wax.

The Industrial Age


Mass production came to candle making. Joseph Morgan invented a machine that used a cylinder featuring a piston that ejected candles as they solidified in their molds.


Paraffin wax was invented. It is processed by distilling the residues left behind by the refining of crude petroleum. This bluish-white wax burned cleanly and with no unpleasant or much odor of any kind. It was also cheap to produce.

20th Century

Eventually, stearic acid was added since it was discovered this ingredient in the original tallow candles was what maintained a higher melting point and produced a harder candle. The growth of the meatpacking and oil industries made candles a common necessity. In 1879, the electric light bulb was invented. However, history did not end for the development of the candle. This was just a temporary setback that reinvented the mission and the market for candles.

Modern Chandlers (Candle Makers)

Internationally, paraffin remains the most popular candle fuel although the use of stearic wax is mostly practiced in Europe. However, technology continues to develop candles that offer new and more benefits. In 1992, after much testing Michael Richards made the first all vegetable candle wax which has developed into our modern soy candle. The versatility of this wax allows for use in both low-melt container candles and high temperature melt for free standing pillar candles.

Gel candles

The most recent state-of-the-art technology revolves around gel candles. The gel is a combination of polymer resin and mineral oil. The patent for making gel wax is held by Penreco Corporaton (US Patent 5,879,694) and is called versagel. Gel provides exceptional safety in terms of its flash point. It is best used in creating what is known as a hurricane candle by putting it in a decorative translucent container and adding a wick. Due to the clarity of the gel, these candles produce 40% more luminescence than regular paraffin wax. Modern chandlers turned artists, now produce beautiful collectibles in the form of embedded glass candle designs. The gel can be reinstated, and the candle passed down through generations to be used again and again. Detailed pictures of these art candles are available at

So…What role do candles play in your life?

Well, they can still light a room…but they can also light a heart. They can express love that lasts a lifetime and an infinite collection of special moments and appreciation.  Candles are a cultural, technical, artistic, therapeutic and spiritual expression of the finest moments in human evolution and experience. That is why they are still present in our lives…in spite of the electric light bulb. This article invites you to use them to celebrate life in all its creative glory.