In our modern world, candles are now – more or less – a luxury item. We use them to give a warm, loving glow and to scent our houses beautifully with spices and fruits. However, they are no longer the essential and immensely important item they once were to a huge amount of people and variety of civilisations around the world before the invention of electricity. Before that, candles were one of the few sources – and certainly the most long lasting – of light available to civilisation after dark. They were a far cry from the scented candles we’ve come to know and love! As such, it’s no enormous surprise that candles were made independently all around the world, and as such the history of candle making and of the different types of candles made is a long, varied, and – we think – fascinating one.
The first candles of any form developed by humans dates back to Ancient Egypt in around 3000BC, where wicks where used for lighting the road for travellers or the inside of homes. It is thought that in around the same period the ancient Romans also used candles for much the same reasons, and perhaps also in religious and spiritual services.
The first wax candles made by humans was made somewhere in the Qin dynasty in ancient China. The Qin was the first dynasty of ancient China and only lasted about 15 years before it fell apart into 18 separate kingdoms, each ruled by a feudal lord. Despite being so short-lived, the Qin dynasty has a significant effect on the dynasties that came after it, and the modern European name for China is thought to be derived from it. Among many other successes, it was the emperor of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, who is credited with the first use of candles. His mausoleum, discovered recently in the ‘90s, was found to have candles in made from whale fat.
Other candles from around this period have been discovered around Asia. In India, candles made wax from boiling cinnamon were used in temples. These are thought to be the first candles used for both light and for scenting a place, and although they wouldn’t have stood up to our current range of cinnamon candles, they would have been a powerful symbol of spirituality and peace in the holy places of India. Other candles have been discovered in China and Japan: beeswax candles are thought to have been developed shortly before 0AD by the Chinese, and across the Sea of Japan candle makers used wax extracted from tree nuts to illuminate the darkened spaces, and in Tibet candles made from Yak butter were used.
In Europe, and Africa, the development of candles was much more stunted due to the availability of natural plants that were high in fat – such as olives – that could be used for lamp oil instead of candles. Therefore, the wax-based methods developed in Asia were not necessary. However, the native people of America had another novel method of making candles and generating light – similar but at the same time very different from the whale fat candles made by a Chinese emperor over 200 years before.
The native people of the Americas learnt that a small, fatty fish known today as the Eulachon (or as the Candlefish) could be used to make light by simply drying the fish and then lighting one end. This simple invention’s importance cannot be underestimated, as through this the native peoples would have been able to work, socialise and get their bearings in the dark without the need of a large, central fire.
Other evidence of the use of candles in the ancient world is widespread. The Jewish festival of lights – Hanukah – centres around the lighting of candles and dates all the way back to 165BC. This religious ceremony celebrates the dedication of Jerusalem’s holy temple after a revolt the 2nd century BC, and was popularised by American Jews in the 1970s as a celebration of Jewish culture.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe fell into what’s now known as the Dark or Middle ages, and olive oil became scarce across the continent. This led to an increase in the use of candles as opposed to lamps lit by oil, and it was this that spread the popularity of candles across the continent. There are many different examples of candles used during this time, but by far the most common comes from tallow candles. That is to say, candles made from rendered animal fat such as that from beef or mutton. For the wick, dried plant stands where used. In later centuries, plant fats replaced animal fats as the main source of candlewax. This could be for a variety of reasons, but one of the most likely is due to the much more pleasant scent of plant-based waxes. Although the earliest examples of European candle making comes from after the Romans, it is thought that there could be much earlier occurrences in colder climates where oil for lamp burning was much less available.
Candle making became more and more popular across Europe and the rest of the world from the Middle Ages to the 1700s, and both tallow and beeswax candles were immensely popular. Beeswax was of course much more so due to its scent, and was used in special occasions such as at religious festivals or during royal events. After the colonisation of America and the birth of the whaling industry, spermaceti (the fat from a sperm whale) was used for candle production as it gave off a much brighter light and burned without any smell. By 1800, better smokeless candles had been developed from the purification of rapeseed oil among other ingredients.
After these early inventions, candles went through several new inventions relatively quickly due to increased demand and scientific endeavour. Stearin and paraffin-derived waxes were quickly invented and then fell into relative disuse with the invention of the light bulb. Today, candles are the decorative items we know and love and are no longer necessary for light, but are no less useful for warming and making our homes a welcoming, sweet-smelling place to come back to.