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  • Writer's pictureLily Smith

The History of Candles: When was the first candle lit?

As you sit down to light your favourite candle, have you ever wondered how your candle came into being? We take a look at the early history of candles to discover where their origins lie, and how much has changed between the first candle, and the modern candles we know and love today...


Candles. These tiny beacons of light hold many purposes to this day: from remembering lost loved ones, to creating a romantic atmosphere, to celebrating birthdays. But, once upon a time, before the invention of electricity, these candles offered one critical thing: light.


The early history of candles: using animal fats to light the way

According to the National Candle Association, candles have been used as sources of light for over 5000 years, but little is known about their origins.

However, they explain that the earliest use of candles is often attributed to the Ancient Egyptians. Here, rushlights and torches were created, by soaking the pithy core of reeds in melted animal fat. While these creations had no true wick, unlike the candles we know today, their primary source - to illuminate - is identical to the true candles that came later in history.


The first wicked candles: Romans, China, Japan and Judaism

After the Egyptian's early prototypes, historians have recognised several examples of early wicked candles from a variety of cultures and settlements.


The National Candle Association explains that the ancient Romans are generally credited with creating the first true wicked candles. These were reportedly made 'by dipping rolled papyrus repeatedly in melted tallow or beeswax.' These candles were used by travellers to light the way, to illuminate homes, and in religious ceremonies.


However, the Romans were not the only ones creating wicked candles during this time, as historians have observed that several other early civilisations were creating candles using the resources available to them, such as plants and insects.


Other key examples of early wicked candles include those in China (made using rolled rice paper for the wick, along with wax which was made using an indigenous insect and seeds), Japan (made using wax extracted from tree nuts) and India (where the candle wax was made by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree).


The National Candle Association also highlights the early use of candles in Judaism, writing: 'Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights which centers on the lighting of candles, dates back to 165 B.C.'

history of candles
The oldest surviving bees wax candles north of the Alps from the alamannic graveyard of Oberflacht, Germany dating to 6th/7th century A.D. (Image: Bullenwächter - Landesmuseum Württemberg)

The history of candles during the Middle Ages and Colonial Times

Throughout the Middle Ages, candles were becoming more popular. Until this point, most candles were made using tallow (or animal fat), which emits an unpleasant odour when burnt.


However, during the middle ages, beeswax candles were introduced, which provided a cleaner, less sooty burn, while also emitting a sweet, pleasant aroma. While beeswax candles were commonly used in religious ceremonies, tallow remained the norm in many households, as it remained the cheapest option.


The growing popularity of candles meant a rise in demand. Unsurprisingly, by the 13th century, candle-making had become a guild craft in England and France. As the National Candle Association explains: 'The candlemakers (chandlers) went from house to house making candles from the kitchen fats saved for that purpose, or made and sold their own candles from small candle shops.'


As the world moved into the Colonial Times, more alternative waxes were enjoying time in the spotlight. In particular, spermaceti wax, which is obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil, became so popular in the late 18th century (largely due to the growth of the whaling industry) that historians recognised these candles as the 'standard candles' of the time. These candles were brighter, harder and emitted no unpleasant odour.


Another wax also emerged during the Colonial Times, however, this one was incredibly short lived. As The National Candle Association explains: 'Colonial women discovered that boiling the grayish-green berries of bayberry bushes produced a sweet-smelling wax that burned cleanly. However, extracting the wax from the bayberries was extremely tedious. As a result, the popularity of bayberry candles soon diminished.'

Bayberry wax (Image: madmimi.com)

Candles in the 19th century: Stearin wax and the rise of paraffin

The 19th Century saw lots of big changes in the candle-making world. Firstly, the process to extract stearic acid from animal fat was discovered, which led to the creation of Stearin wax. This durable wax quickly became popular. In fact, it is still in use today - although the wax is generally made from plant-based materials.


Another - even bigger - candle development in the 19th Century was the discovery of paraffin wax, a by-product of the refinement of petroleum. As The Candle Selection explains: 'Due to these new processes, paraffin wax was more economical to produce than any of the previous materials used for candle making and became the material of choice for mass-market candles, being still widely used today.'



However, despite these huge developments in the candle-making world, the 19th Century also saw the invention of something that would render our flickering friends practically useless: the light bulb. With a new go-to source of everyday lighting, the purpose of candles was altered forever.

From the 20th century to today: a new chapter for candles

Following the invention of the lightbulb, candles were no longer required for everyday lighting. So, why didn't they disappear from general use completely?


Well, as the 20th century got underway, many people were choosing to still use their candles in certain situations. Namely, to create cosy, relaxing, or spiritual atmospheres. They were also considered more of a decorative item, rather than merely practical.


Since the 20th century, the candle has also undergone several changes, both in design and ingredients. While many people stick use traditional taper candles and candlesticks, lots of us prefer to use the more modern glass jar or tin candles.


Paraffin wax still remains the most popular wax for most mass-produced candles, mostly due to its price and availability. However, as more people become increasingly aware of toxins in products, many of us are choosing to use candles that are made with natural waxes, like soy, coconut, rapeseed and beeswax.


In modern society, we're also seeing lots of decorative candles, in every shape you could think of - from female busts and body parts to Christmas trees and realistic fruits! Lots of people are also looking to make their own candles at home, seen in the rise of DIY candle-making kits and TikTok tutorials.



What do you think is next up for candles?



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