Candles through the Ages

As you can imagine, Candlelight is a massive part of our lives here at OSA

We always have a number of candles burning somewhere around the place. Whether we’re experimenting with new wicks or testing the hot-throw of a new fragrance, candles and candlelight are a massive part of our lives.  Even when we close the workshop door, we still love to enjoy our evenings by candlelight.

Candlesticks through the ages

So, this got me thinking ... when did we humans first harness this source of light and develop what we now call candles? Naturally, I started my research with the Romans and discovered that, even before the Egyptians, they had created wicked candles by dipping rolled papyrus repeatedly in melted tallow. The resulting candles were used to light their homes, to aid travellers at night and in religious ceremonies.

The Middle Ages

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 burns purely and cleanly, without producing a smoky flame. It also emits a pleasant sweet smell rather than the foul, acrid odour 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, therefore, remained the most common type of candle for general household.

A Guild Craft

By the 13th century, candle making had become a guild craft in England and France. The candlemakers (or chandlers as they became known and we continue to be known today) would go from house to house making candles from the kitchen fats saved for that purpose, as well as making and selling their own candles from small candle shops.  In London, the candlemakers’ guild, known as The Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers, recently celebrated its 550th anniversary - although it now focuses on charitable work, rather than being an association for the chandler trade.

A New Discovery

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 crystallising sperm whale oil — became readily available. 

Like beeswax, the spermaceti wax did not give off quite such a repugnant odour when burned and produced a significantly brighter light. It also was harder than either tallow or beeswax, so tended not to soften or bend in the Summer heat. It’s fair to say then, that spermaceti wax candles could be classed as the first ‘standard candles’ and closest to what we would recognised as a candle today.

A Century of Breakthroughs

The 19th century was a defining time for the candles and candle making. A key breakthrough came when a chemist named Michael Eugene Chevreul identified for the first time that tallow or animal fat consisted of various fatty acids. One of the fatty acids he identified was stearine (stearic acid). In 1825, Chevreul and another chemist named Joseph Gay Lussac patented a process for candle making from crude stearic acid. This process drastically improved the quality of candles.

In 1834, inventor Joseph Morgan helped to further the modern-day candle industry by developing a machine that allowed for continuous production of moulded candles by using a cylinder with a movable piston to eject candles as they solidified. With the introduction of mechanised production, candles became an easily affordable commodity and allowing them to reach the homes of all classes.

Paraffin wax was introduced in the 1850s, after chemists learned how to efficiently separate the naturally-occurring waxy substance from petroleum and refine it. Odourless 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. 

Continuing a Great Tradition

With the introduction of the light bulb in 1879, candle making began to decline and for around a hundred years the candle industry remained pretty flat. Then, in the mid-1980s, when interest in candles as decorative items, mood-setters and gifts began to increase notably, candle innovation began once again. Suddenly, candles were available in a broad array of sizes, shapes and colours 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 United States, agricultural chemists began to develop soybean wax, a softer and slower burning wax than paraffin and by the early twenty-first century, candles had once more become part and parcel of everyday life. Although no longer our major source of light, they continue to grow in popularity and use. 

Candles for a Modern World

Today, candles symbolise celebration, mark romance, soothe the senses, define ceremony and accent home interior design — casting a warm and lovely glow for all to enjoy. 

In addition to this, here at OSA, we want our candles to be kind to the environment.  That’s why we work closely with our suppliers to ensure we take our place in this great chandler tradition by producing scented candles fit for a modern sustainable world.  Our candles are human, animal and earth-friendly. They are produced with the utmost care and attention to minimise the environmental impact of our business.

Enjoy a truly modern candle - try OSA today

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