Let there be light! We're looking back at the history of candles and candle-making around the world including modern techniques and perfumery in France.
Candle-Making Around the World
Artificial light and the use of fire has been vital for humankind. Although it is difficult to pinpoint when or where the first candle appeared, the essential source of light popped up in numerous cultures around the world many, many years ago.
The Ancient Egyptians are often attributed with creating the earliest candle by making rushlights or torches. These rushlights had a core of reeds soaked in melted animal fats. However, this invention lacked a traditional candle wick. For this reason, others attribute the first candle to the Ancient Romans who created the wicked candle from dipping papyrus into animal fats.
Further back still, there is evidence the first candle may actually have been created under the Qin Dynasty in China around 200 BCE. Around this same time, candles made from the wax residue from boiling cinnamon were also being used in India.
No matter where the candle originated, it became a popular means to provide light, potentially provide heat, as well as acted as an effective measurement of time. Candles also became important for religious purposes. Hanukkah, a Jewish festival, centers around the lighting of candles. We also have writings from Pliny the Elder denoting the importance of candles in Roman religious ceremonies.
While candles use spread rapidly, poorer households may have remained dependent on torches, using dried wood to provide light in their home. However, this began to change in the 13th century when candle-making became a guild craft in places like England and France. Chandlers (candle-makers) went from house to house making candles from kitchen fats saved by the household for that purpose. These candles made from animal fats were called tallow. Unfortunately, tallow candles had a foul odor and produced a smoky flame.
Types of Candles throughout History
To move away from the unpleasant, but effective, tallow candles, several wax alternatives were developed over the centuries.
The oldest wax alternative to tallow, and still an extremely popular choice today, is beeswax. Beeswax was used by both Egyptians and Romans, but it was not a common market product. While being entirely natural and organic, it requires a huge number of flowers and bees work to manufacture, which meant only the elite could afford its soft glow and pleasant scent.
The first major consumer-friendly candle came in the 18th century with spermaceti. Spermaceti is crystallized sperm whale oil, which smelled better than tallow, and produced a bright light. It was also a harder substance than both tallow and beeswax that could withstand hotter temperatures. This meant it was less likely to bend and lose shape. Thus, it became the first standardized candle.
However, the biggest mass-produced candle was developed in the 1850s. Chemists discovered how to separate the waxy substance from petroleum and then refined it to create paraffin wax. These candles burned cleanly compared to tallow, and were the most economical to produce despite their low burning point.
Interestingly, soy candles, made from soybean oil, were not invented until 1996. Soy candles were made by a group of Purdue University students who wanted to create birthday candles from a renewable source.
French Innovations & Modern Candle Production
French contributions to candle-making began early in the medieval ages as chandlers. But a major advancement came in the 1820s when Michel Eugene Chevreul, a French chemist, extracted stearic acid from animal fats. Stearin wax from animal fat or vegetable oil creates hard, durable candles that burns cleanly. In fact, stearic candles remain incredibly popular across Europe today.
French chandling has always been intricately tied to the delicacy of fragrance and beauty of design found in French perfumery as well as in the culinary arts.
For French chandlers, the first step in candle-making quickly became perfumery itself by using raw materials of purity and quality to produce a scented wax. Cire Trudon, founded in 1643, is widely regarded as the world’s oldest candle manufacturing still in production today, and provided candles to the royal court because of their purity.
Today, artisans like Christian Tortu, are connected to the past and present of candle-making. Centered on nature itself, Tortu began his career with floral arrangements as a means to bring nature back into the city. His scented lines draw exclusively from pure elements, and the ‘art of living in nature.’
French candle-makers continue to produce the perfect candle with a blend of history, craftsmanship and quality ingredients.
In many ways, the history and production of candles is simple. Melt your wax, add a scent if desired, pour your wax, and secure a wick. But in many other ways, candles are so much more. They are no longer just a primary source for light, but rather candles can be an experience in and of themselves.
They have lit the road for weary travellers, provided light for a passionate writer eagerly scribbling away at their desk, and acted as a quiet calm in the darkness.
Today, candles are not purely functional, but act as ambience and can provide a source of relaxation or intimacy. Candle fragrances have the ability to transport your senses somewhere new entirely - whether that be to a different time, place, or simply to help fuel a moment of calm in an otherwise busy day.
So it is no wonder that candle-making has never faded into history. It may have flickered, but the flame has never faltered.
What are some of your favourite candle scents?