The Colonial Period

The first known candles in America go back as far as the first century A.D. when Native Americans fished for “candlefish.” This fish is so oily that it could be used as a candle. To that purpose, candlefish was dried, then stuck on a stick and lighted.

When the European settlers began arriving in America, they found they had to be resourceful in order to survive in the New World. In the southwestern United States, early missionaries boiled bark from the Cerio tree, which produced a wax-like substance that they skimmed and used for making candles. They may also have used the desert shrub jojoba, which yields a useful wax. What goes around comes around — and jojoba is now much in demand for “natural” candles, and is also being used in cosmetics.

In New England, settlers who needed to survive those cold dark New England winters also became quite skilled at making their own candles. Native Americans taught them how to extract wax from bayberries, berries of the beach shrub Myrica carolinensis native to New England. This wax could be used to make candles. Today, bayberry candles are a rarity because of the expense of making them — it takes 1½ quarts of bayberries to make a single 8-inch taper!

Pure bayberry candles are making a comeback both in home candlemaking and in the mail-order catalogs which sell old-fashioned products, such as the Vermont Country Store, and upscale mail-order catalogs such as Smith & Hawken.

Consider this quote when you think about the importance of candles to the settlers: “In the tropics the sun rises at six in the morning and sets at six in the evening and that's that. There is very little twilight. As you go further north or south of the equator, the differential between winter and summer daylight hours increases until you reach those unfortunate latitudes where the sun never sets all summer or rises all winter. To spend a winter in such a place without [candle] light would surely drive you mad.” — The Forgotten Household Crafts, John Seymour

In the Household

A Colonial housewife was a hard worker indeed. Her many chores included making candles for the family's use from animal fat, which she collected diligently in pottery crocks all year long. When the time came to make candles, she rendered the often-rancid fat and made “taller tips” by repeatedly dipping wicks into the hot tallow and allowing it to cool between dips. This is the exact same method used today for dipped candles (except that we have the advantage of using wax, often sweetly scented, instead of the smoky, smelly tallow).

For a wonderful and well-written look at the various crafts practiced by the men of Colonial America, take a look at Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginnings of American Industry, written and illustrated by Edwin Tunis (World Publishing).

Some well-to-do households owned tin molds capable of casting a dozen candles simultaneously. This was an enormous advantage over the dip-and-cool method. The itinerant chandler included in his equipment large molds that could cast as many as six dozen candles. Though his presence was malodorous, he had the advantage of being able to cast a year's supply of candles for a family in one operation. He strung the candles up with the tow-linen wick provided by the mistress, melted down the hard fat, and in the course of a day's casting relieved the household of much onerous labor. A welcome offshoot of his work was the making of soap, which was the softer fat boiled with lye and then cooled.

A Stinky Business

Although chandlers were unwelcome as neighbors (for theirs was a greasy and stinky trade), they were vital to the well-being of their communities, especially as society became more complex and sophisticated than in the early colonial days. The importance of candlemaking in early American economy cannot be overemphasized, for it formed the basis of an entire industry, which grew as the society advanced and the population increased.

One of the more famous chandlers (thanks to his son) was Josiah Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's father. Originally a dyer in England, Josiah switched to candlemaking, becoming a “tallow-chandler and sope-boiler” when he came to Boston, where his old trade did not pay well enough to support his family. Perhaps candlemaking was more lucrative because plainly dressed Bostonians disdained clothes of bright colors and had no need for dyers.

By the eighteenth century, the word “chandler” was in competition with the word “grocer” to indicate a shopkeeper. In those days, there were different types of chandlers — the terms “tallow chandler,” “wax chandler,” and “ship chandler” were in common use. Interestingly, the term “ship chandler” survives to this day, and refers to a retailer of specific goods. In the l760s, a group of candlemakers — who did not make soap as did the less-respected tallow chandlers — chose to call themselves “candlers.” However, the term did not stick, and today it is used to designate a person who tests eggs (by holding the egg up to a candle flame and looking inside). Prior to l750, wax chandlers made their finest candles from beeswax, or from bayberry wax.

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