Candles and candle-like devices served as humanity’s primary light source for centuries, before the advent of electric light. Some of the first people to use “candles” were the ancient Egyptians who used rush lights, or torches, made by soaking the pithy core of reeds in molten tallow. Later the Romans developed the wick candle. To aid nighttime travelers and to light homes and places of worship they used candle wicks.
Candle making for the Romans, like the early Egyptians, relied on tallow gathered from cattle or sheep suet. It was not until the Middle Ages that beeswax, secreted by honey bees to make honeycombs, came into use. Beeswax candles were far superior to tallow candles, as they burned pure and clean, and did not produce a smoky flame or emit an acrid odor when burned. However, these were expensive and, therefore, only the wealthy could use these valuable candles.
Candle making was again transformed by American colonial women who discovered that boiling the berries of bayberry bushes yielded a sweet-smelling, clean burning candle wax. However, extracting wax from bayberries was extremely tedious and cause the decline of the popularity of bayberry candles.
Candles changed in a major way with the growth of the whaling industry in the late 18th century. At this time spermaceti, a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil, became readily available for candle making. Like beeswax, the spermaceti had a pleasant smell but even better, it was harder than either tallow or beeswax. Consequently, it did not soften or bend in the summer heat, and so candles from spermaceti became what historians note as the first "standard candles."
Candle making as we know it today developed with the advent of the 19th century. Mass production of candles became possible in 1834, when inventor Joseph Morgan introduced a machine which continuously produced molded candles using a cylinder featuring a movable piston that, as they solidified, ejected candles.
Candle making further developmented in 1850, with the production of paraffin wax made from oil and coal shales. Processed by distilling the residues of crude petroleum refinement, the bluish-white wax burnt cleanly, with no unpleasant odor. Most significantly paraffin wax was more economical to produce than any other candle fuel. And while paraffin's low melting point might have been a problem, this was solved with the discovery of hard and durable stearic acid, which was produced in quantity by the end of the 19th century. Consequently, paraffin and stearic acid made up most manufactured candles.
Candle making declined with the introduction of the light bulb in 1879, until the turn of the century when there emerged a renewed popularity for candles.
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, came an increase in their by-products: paraffin and stearic acid, the basic ingredients of contemporary candles.
Candles are still an integral part of our experience and continue to grow in popularity and use, although they are no longer humanity’s primary source of light. Today, candles symbolize celebration, mark romance, define ceremony, and accent decor — and continue to cast a warm glow in our lives. They also continue to be big business.
- Candle sales in the U.S. are estimated at $2.3 billion annually.
- There are more than 350 commercial, religious and institutional candle manufacturers in the U.S., as well as scores of small craft producers for local, non-commercial use.
- Typically, a major U.S. candle manufacturer offers 1,000 to 2,000 varieties of candles in its product line.
- Candle sales have grown 10 to 15 percent per year in the last decade,
fueled by consumer interest in aromatherapy and increased demand for home fragrance products.
- The Census Bureau reports a total value of candle shipments in 1997 of $968 million; industry estimates estimate 1999 sales of scented candles at $1.3 billion and up to $2.3 billion for all candles.