Candles. Just some wax and a bit of string, right? Simple, easy to make, any one could do it? Not so much.
Candles, the primary source of light during the Regency, were actually a rather complex commodity to make and use. They varied widely in quality, based on the material and techniques used to make them. And, if you made candles at home in Regency England, you might very well find yourself in the dock, before a judge or magistrate. And now, the candle chronicles …
The most basic definition of a candle is a quantity of solid fuel formed around a wick. Elementally, it was a means by which to store energy for use as light when needed. The earliest known "candles" were rushlights, made by dipping a wick made of the stripped and dried pith of a rush or reed into hot waste animal fat. Rushlights were often made and used in Regency England, usually in remote rural areas. The most common rush used in Britain was Juncus effusus, known as the common or soft rush. The best time to collect rushes was in the late summer, when they had attained their full height but were still green and pliant. Both ends would be cut off, leaving a rush of approximately eighteen inches in length. Next, the majority of the skin would be peeled away, which required some skill and manual dexterity to do properly. A narrow strip of skin would be left on the rush to support the soft inner pith and the stripped rushes would be laid out to dry. Once the rushes were dry, waste kitchen fat would be melted in a wide, boat-shaped pan called a grisset. These vessels were typically made of wrought or cast iron and had three or four legs, which could be as much as a foot long, allowing the grisset to stand above the direct heat of the fire. A few dried rushes at a time would be slowly drawn through the fat in the grisset, several times, allowing them to fully absorb the fat. The saturated rushes would be laid out on pieces of tree bark, where they were allowed to dry. According to William Cobbett, in an 1824 number of his treatise on self-sufficiency, Cottage Economy, once the rushlights were dry, the sheets of bark on which they were laid out were often strapped to the wall as the most convenient means of storage. The average eighteen-inch rushlight would burn for approximately fifteen to twenty minutes, thus several might be needed for even a couple of hours of light for an evening. The use of rushlights continued in many rural areas of Britain for several decades after the Regency. In Wales, in particular, it was a tradition that reportedly lingered on into the middle of the twentieth century.
Candles, more in the shape we know them today, were made and used by at least the early Middle Ages, though they tended to be used only in great houses, monasteries and in churches. By the later Middle Ages, candles began to be used in more modest homes. In rural areas where pastoral farming was practiced, animal tallow was readily available and it was the responsibility of the farmers’ wives to use that tallow to make both soap and candles for their homes. Any surplus soap or candles were often sold at market to those who did not raise their own animals. The most valued tallow was that obtained from sheep or goats, which was preferred for its hardness and gloss. Next in value was beef tallow, which made candles which were slightly softer and greasy to the touch. The least favored and the cheapest tallow was that from pigs, as it gave off both a foul smell and thick, black smoke when it burned. Before any of this tallow could be made into candles, or any other household product, the animal fat had to be rendered, that is, heated so that the fat would melt and the membranous matter to which it clung, and which might putrefy, could be removed. This was an arduous and odoriferous process which was usually undertaken in the autumn, when animals were typically slaughtered. The rendered and strained fat would then be melted in a large cooking pot or cauldron. Twisted strands of linen would be prepared, typically in lengths of a yard or so and they would have to be fairly thick, to enable the wick to draw up enough melted tallow to produce a useable flame. Each wick would have to have its threads carefully twisted together so that they became a single strand, but they must also be perfectly straight and smooth, for any knots would cause the finished candle to gutter and flare, or even go out. The finished wicks would be hung over a wooden or metal rod and the bare wicks would be dipped into the tallow until they were fully saturated. That nascent set of candle pairs would be allowed to cool and harden while the next set of wicks was dipped. Each set of paired candles would be dipped and re-dipped until candles of the desired thickness had been achieved. Dipping candles was just as back-breaking, labor-intensive, and nearly as malodorous, as rendering the animal fat to make the tallow. But farmers’ wives were not the only ones making candles in medieval times. Even the larger villages had at least one chandler, who made candles, and often soap, for those who were unable or unwilling to make their own. In London, before the end of the fifteenth century, there were enough chandlers in residence that they had already formed their own guilds. These guilds remained strong and powerful right through the Regency as candle and soap demand remained high. By the eighteenth century, chandlers across the country had need of more tallow than could be produced in Britain alone, and were therefore importing large quantities of tallow from Russia.
In the fifteenth century, probably in France, the candle mold first appeared. Candle molds were initially used primarily by professional chandlers. Molded candles were more efficient and faster to make, thus reducing their cost and enabling more people to afford to purchase them, rather than having to make their own. They were also considered more attractive, having a smoother surface and a more regular shape. There was also the advantage to the consumer that the poorest quality tallow was too sticky to be used in molds. Thus, molded candles had to be made of better quality tallow. However, with molded candles, the wicks must be stretched quite tight as each mold was filled with the hot tallow. This step was referred to as pulling the cotton. A taut, straight wick would yield a candle which was less prone to guttering, provided it was made with a high grade of tallow. The most expensive molded candles were those made solely of mutton tallow, the next expensive were those made of a blend of mutton and beef tallow, while all-beef tallow candles were the least expensive. Even after the introduction of the candle mold, candles made of the smelly, smoky pork tallow were only made by dipping. Thus, cheap candles were commonly known as "dips," after their method of manufacture.
Even when made with the very best quality tallow and the straightest wicks, tallow candles could still gutter, that is, molten rivulets of liquefied tallow would run down the sides of the candle, to puddle, unused and wasted, at the base of the candle. Only if a candle was carefully tended could guttering be controlled and the full value of the tallow in the candle be realized. The wicks of tallow candles had to be carefully trimmed every five to thirty minutes, depending on the quality of the tallow, to prevent the "snuff," the burnt part of the wick, from falling into the melted tallow pool just below the flame. If the snuff, the charred remains of the wick, were to fall into the molten tallow pool beneath it, the debris would cause the small pool of liquefied tallow to overflow, or worse, if the snuff were still burning, it could cause the tallow to flare, generating a lot of smoke and possibly even causing a fire. A special device was invented for use in snuffing tallow candle wicks. These special snuffers, sometimes called box snuffers, or snuffer boxes, looked like a pair of scissors with a small box attached to one blade. As the scissors cut away the burnt snuff of the wick, it would fall into the box for safe disposal. These snuffer boxes were not used to extinguish a candle, but to keep it burning. Snuffer boxes might be made of iron or pewter, but there were also many made of brass as well as some of silver, and even a few made of gold.
By the latter half of the sixteenth century, candle molds, of pewter or wood, were oftentimes included in household equipment in rural English homes, as standards of living were rapidly improving outside urban centers. But in the seventeenth century, there is evidence in household inventories and other documents that urban dwellers seldom owned candle-making equipment. Most scholars believe that people who lived in cities and towns preferred to purchase their candles, rather than make them. But most of these urban candle-buyers did own at least one pair of box snuffers, and would have had to carefully tend their burning candles to avoid guttering and thus get their money’s worth from their candles. There were other problems with tallow candles, regardless of whether they were home-made or made by a chandler. Tallow was, after all, a meat by-product and tallow candles tended to attract rodents, so they had to be kept in rodent-proof containers when not in use and kept in a cool place. Tallow candles tended to droop, or bend to one side when they got warm, either on a hot day, or from being set too close to a fire. Tallow candle users had to be very careful where they placed their candles, as well as tending them closely to prevent guttering, which not only wasted candles, but often caused the candles to smell and smoke. Tallow candles also tended to drop wax along their path as they were carried from room to room. This was the case with tallow candles right into the Regency.
Anyone who has read even a few Regency novels knows that beeswax candles were preferable to those made of tallow, and that they were much more expensive. The reasons? Beeswax was significantly more costly than tallow, because there was less of it and it was much more difficult to harvest. In addition, beeswax candles were extremely labor-intensive to produce, which also added to their exorbitant price. Beeswax is, of course, the material which bees make for use in storing their honey. They are the only source, and though bee-keeping was extensive in Regency England, there was still considerably more animal fat available than there was beeswax. Once the honey was removed from the comb, the wax was melted and strained to remove any impurities, after which the still very yellow wax was poured into sheets, which were cut into strips once the wax had cooled and hardened. The strips were then laid out in the sun to bleach. The strips would have to be turned regularly and it could take days or weeks for the beeswax to become white, depending upon the strength of the sun. The white wax was then re-melted in a large pot or cauldron while the wicks were prepared. By the Regency, wicks might be made of the old standard, linen, but they were more likely be made of cotton, which was by then being regularly imported from India and the Levant. Cotton was the preferred wick material as it left less ash as it burned and since beeswax candles burned more slowly, a thinner wick could be used than that required for tallow candles. Once the wick threads were twisted together, and straightened, they were hung over a hoop-like frame and the hot beeswax was carefully ladled over them. As soon as they were cool enough to touch, the warm, malleable candles were rolled into shape, using hardwood rollers. Beeswax candles could not be made in molds because the wax was too sticky to be removed from a mold once it had fully cooled. In fact, the hardwood rollers which were used to finish the beeswax candles had to be kept moist as the candles were rolled between them, to keep the candles from sticking to the surface of the rollers. This entire process was carried out by hand, requiring a great many workers to produce beeswax candles and increasing their price.
Regardless of their high cost, beeswax candles had a number of advantages over tallow candles, even those made of the best quality tallow. Beeswax candles burned cleanly, and gave off a pleasant aroma as they burned, unlike tallow candles, which often smelled, especially when they were extinguished. Beeswax candles did not smoke and the thinner cotton wicks seldom had to be snuffed. Beeswax candles also produced a much brighter flame than did tallow candles, so that it might take as many as three or four tallow candles to produce the same amount of light as a single candle of beeswax. Beeswax candles had a smooth, hard, glossy finish, and never felt greasy to the touch, as did all but the very best tallow candles. In addition, beeswax candles would not droop on a hot day, or if they were placed in close proximity to a fire, nor did they attract rodents. However, they were usually stored in sturdy boxes to prevent damage, and such boxes might be locked or sealed in some way, due to the high price which had to be paid for candles made of beeswax. It should also be noted that centuries before the Regency, the Vatican had ordered that only beeswax candles could be burned in Catholic churches during services, because it was believed that bees were blessed by the Almighty and that they represented spiritual joy. The Anglican church appears to have also adhered to these rules, so that only beeswax candles were burned during their services, as well.
Today, candles are more a luxury than a necessity, but until the mid-nineteenth century, when petroleum products first began to become commercially available, with the exception of the fire in the fireplace, candles of some form were the only source of artificial light available to anyone. Particularly in urban areas, where people had no wish to go to bed with the sun, candles were essential, so essential that in 1709, Parliament levied a tax on all candles. But that 1709 Act of Parliament went further still. Not only were candles taxed, but the making of candles at home was banned, unless the maker obtained a special license, which could only be acquired with the payment of a heavy fee and an additional tax. Candle making was indeed dangerous, but Parliament did not ban the making of candles at home for safety reasons. They did so in order to control production and ensure the payment of tax on every candle burned in the country. This law had a minimal effect on those who lived in cities and towns, as most of them had not made their own candles in several generations. But it was resented and often flouted in more rural areas, and was completely ignored in the North American colonies. Farm wives in remote, rural areas of England sometimes took the chance and make their own candles. The tallow rendered from a single bullock would be enough to make all the candles needed on an average farm for three years, so it would not be necessary to make candles every year. However, if the farm wife wanted the better quality candles made from mutton tallow, she might take the risk of making candles every year, unless more than one sheep or goat was slaughtered on her farm in a given year. In the American colonies, where chandlers were usually only to be found in the cities and larger towns, families in rural areas who wanted candles had to make them themselves, or do without.
There was a notice in The Oxford Magazine, or University Museum, of 1769, that in Barnet, a local Baronet was brought before a bench of justices, where he was convicted of making his own candles at his country seat. He was initially fined £3,100, but it was noted in the report that the fine was reduced to only £110 before the justices left the court. So, even sixty years after the passage of the law, there were those in England, even gentlemen, who were still making their own candles. By the Regency, which was more than a century after this law was enacted, it is unlikely that most of the aristocracy or the gentry were typically engaged in the clandestine production of their own candles. But it is known that candles were still made, in violation of the law, on isolated farms in the vicinity of Powys, in Wales. There are also suggestions the same thing occurred in remote areas of Scotland and Ireland. The 1709 law did not forbid the making of rushlights, and some poor people were able to continue to light their rooms of an evening with home-made rushlights. But for some of the poor, that was quite impossible, as they had very little meat in their diet, thus having little fat from which to make rushlights. For a family who might only be able to afford a small amount of bacon each week, the leftover fat, which would have made smelly, smoky rushlights, would have been more likely to be consumed as drippings smeared over bread. Records show that for many poor laborer’s families, during the dark winter months, the purchase of candles made up a significant portion of the family budget. During the longer days of summer, they could manage with few, if any candles. As I noted in my article on Lady Day, which was the beginning of Spring, many poor and rural families stopped using candles on that day, and would not use them again until Michaelmas Day, the beginning of autumn. Poor people, or those in straightened circumstances, had another method of economizing on candles. They would draw lines on their candles a specific width apart. Each night, when the candle burned down to the next line, they would snuff it out and retire to bed, in the dark, grateful for any stray moonbeams which might happen to light their way. It was most common to divide the candle into seven segments, thus making a single candle last a full week.
There was one other type of candle which was available in Regency England, but it was even more expensive than beeswax candles, and had to be imported from the fledgling United States of America. Spermaceti was an unwanted product of the whaling industry, until the last decades of the eighteenth century, when Jacob Rodrigues Rivera, of Newport, Rhode Island, developed a technique by which he could make truly superior candles from it. Rivera soon went into business with his son-in-law, Aaron Lopez, industrializing the process of making spermaceti candles, as the demand increased for these pure white, odorless, clean, consistently burning candles which provided an intense light. The cost of spermaceti candles fluctuated widely with the ability of the whaling industry to procure sperm whales. Only the very wealthy could afford spermaceti candles, when they were available, and even then, typically used them only for special occasions. Spermaceti candles burned so brightly and so consistently that a spermaceti candle was used to set the standard, not only by which all other candles would be judged, but also to set a standard measure for artificial light. The measurement of a foot-candle was set by measuring the light given off by one spermaceti candle weighting one-sixth of a pound and burning at a rate of 120 grains per hour, striking a one-foot square surface one foot from the flame. This remained the international standard of measure of artificial light until the middle of the last century.
Brief mention should also be made of what some considered medicinal candles. Some vegetable waxes were used to make candles, such as bayberries, which gave off a pleasing fragrance. Ambergris, and other strongly fragrant oils were sometimes added to candle wax, usually beeswax or spermaceti, if it could be had. This process produced candles which were believed by some, even in the Regency, to shield those in the vicinity when it was burned from illness, or expel bad humors from someone who was ill, when the candle was burned near their sickbed. Bayberry candles were made commercially in America and were exported to Britain. Other scented candles found in Regency England were most likely made clandestinely, probably by women knowledgeable in the healing arts, women who might once have been considered witches. It should also be noted that all candles available during the Regency were either white, cream or ivory in color. It was not until coal-tar based aniline dyes were introduced in the 1850s that it was possible to color candle wax successfully.
For all of the years of the Regency, there was little change in candle technology, but just as the Prince Regent became King George IV, new discoveries in France would significantly improve both wicks and candles. And just as his younger brother acceded to the throne as King William IV, an Englishman would introduce a method to eliminate guttering. In 1821, while Prinny was planning his coronation, Napoleon’s erstwhile Second Consul, Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, discovered that if the cotton threads of a wick were plaited together, rather than simply twisted, the resulting wick would naturally bend into the outer part of the flame and would be completely consumed, eliminating the need for constant snuffing. At about the same time, another Frenchman, Michel Eugène Chevreul, was engaged in research into the properties of fatty acids. He published his work in 1823, Recherches sur les corps gras d’origine animale, in which he explained the make-up of stearin, the solid white substance found in most animal fats. This research enabled another French chemist, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, by 1825, to then separate fatty acids from the glycerine of fat to produce stearic acid. This discovery led to the refining of animal tallow with alkali and sulfuric acid, making it possible to produce solid, odorless white candles from any kind of tallow, which, when made with plaited wicks, were not only less expensive and longer burning, but they were much less likely to gutter and smoke. Then, in 1831, the Englishman, De Milly, began experimenting with impregnating wicks with boric acid. This process became known as pickling. Strange as it may seem, boric acid is a fire retardant, but as such, it virtually eliminated all candle guttering by allowing the fuel of the candle wax to burn away faster than the wick itself. Thus, a plaited wick, pickled in a boric acid solution, would ensure the efficient burning of the candle fuel before it could overflow and run down the sides of the candle, and a plaited cotton wick would bend into the flame and burn away with little or no ash and thus no need for constant snuffing. Just as Victoria was coming to the throne, high quality tallow candles were first being made by machine, significantly reducing their cost. Paraffin candles were first manufactured in the 1860s, when petroleum products were made regularly available on a commercial basis. But within a decade, candle use began to decline, as petroleum also provided other fuels to power more efficient lamps. Today, most candles are made of a blend of beeswax and paraffin.
However, all these technical improvements to candles came only after the Regency was over. Therefore, during our favorite decade, candles were very much as they had been in the preceding centuries and they were an extremely valuable commodity, since they were the only practical way to provide artificial light at this time. It was for that reason that Parliament taxed candles and banned the making of them in the home. It is true that some oil-burning lamps had been introduced by the early nineteenth century, but they were expensive and unreliable novelties which were not yet widely adopted during the Regency. The least expensive form of candle was the rushlight, which could legally be made at home, from waste animal fat, if it was available. The use of rushlights was almost completely confined to remote rural areas by the advent of the Regency. Dips, that is, candles made from very inferior tallow, were the cheapest form of candle. Typically made of pork tallow, they had a foul odor when burned and gave off a thick, black smoke. Everyday candles for the middle classes were of molded tallow, mutton tallow candles being the best quality, while the most popular and affordable were a blend of mutton and beef tallow, and all-beef tallow candles were the least expensive. All these candles gave off a slightly rancid smell when burned, mutton tallow candles having the least odor, while the all-beef tallow candles were more smelly. Freshly-made candles typically emitted the least odor. The older the candles were, the more rancid they would smell. All tallow candles required constant tending as they burned, so that the wick snuff could be cut away with a pair of box snuffers before it could cause annoying guttering, which wasted candle wax and increased smoking. In middle class homes, a lower servant would be assigned the task of tending the candles. In homes without servants, more than likely, the children would have to take turns tending the candles each evening and snuffing the wicks as they burned. Tallow candles attracted rodents, were often greasy to the touch and would soften and droop on a hot day or when placed too near a fire. They had to be stored in a cool place, in rodent-proof containers. All of that clearly demonstrates what a great luxury beeswax candles truly were. They had a lovely, honey-like fragrance as they burned, cleanly, producing a much brighter light, and their usually cotton wicks seldom requiring snuffing. But the luxe de luxe of all candles were those made of spermaceti. Pure white, they burned cleanly, with no odor, and cast a light brighter than any other candle then known. They were extremely expensive, and often difficult to obtain, so they were typically purchased only by the most wealthy, and used only on very special occasions.
The next time you attend a grand and glittering ball, along with the characters in the Regency novel you are reading, you will have a better appreciation of why everyone is so pleased that the rooms are lit with beeswax candles. So, too, will you be better able to understand the many annoyances and inconveniences endured by those forced to use tallow candles, or worse still, rushlights, to illuminate their rooms in the hours after sunset. Next week, I will cast some light on some of the many types of specialty candle holders which were available during the Regency, and illuminate the unique properties and uses of each.