The name candle comes from the Latin candere meaning “to shine.” Actually, very little is known about the origin of them. No one person is credited with their invention. Early Egyptians used “rushlights,” which were torches made from reeds, peeled except on one side, with the pith soaked in molten tallow. Tallow comes from rendered cattle, horse or sheep fat. Historians credit the Romans with developing the wick candle.
How does a wick candle work? The wick is made of an absorbent material. The wick itself only burns long enough to melt the wax around it. It then absorbs the melted wax and pulls it upwards. The heat of the flame vaporizes the wax and it is the wax vapor that burns from that point on, not the wick. The vaporizing wax cools the wick and keeps it from being consumed by the fire. This process only requires a small amount of wax on the wick to keep the fire burning. The length and quality of burning depends upon the quality of the wax.
The candle is the oldest means of supplying light. Although some changes have been made to methods of candle manufacture, there is no basic difference between a candle made in the past and one made today.
References to lighting candles date back to ancient times as early as 3000 BC in Crete and Egypt. Candles are mentioned in Biblical writings as early as the tenth century BC. A fragment of the candle from the first century AD has been found in Avignon, France.
Candles were used in great halls, monasteries, and churches of medieval times. Also, candles were used to light cottages and shops. King Alfred of England stuck torches in walls to supply lighting. The simplest (and smelliest) candles known as rush light were made by dipping rushes in leftover kitchen fat.
For many centuries, candles were considered expensive items in Europe. Town-made candles from the wax-chandler were available for those who could afford them. These candles were made of wax or animal fat and were placed in silver, wooden or pewter candlesticks.
From the sixteenth century onwards, living standards improved as evidenced by the increasing availability of candlesticks and candle holders and their appearance in households. At this time, candles were usually sold by the pound and sold in bundles of eight, ten, or twelve candles. Everyday candles were made of animal fat (tallow), usually from sheep (mutton) or cows. These candles were usually a dark yellowish color and probably gave off a nasty smell.
In England, both the wax chandlers and the tallow chandlers formed their guilds. Wax chandlers were considered more upper class than tallow chandlers. Their business was also more profitable because people were prepared to pay more for a wax candle.The English Tallow Chandlers were incorporated in 1462, and they regulated trade in candles made from animal fats.
The quality of candle light depended upon the type of material used. Beeswax, for example, gave off a much brighter light than tallow. In addition to tallow and beeswax, another material known as spermaceti became popular for candlemaking. Spermaceti was derived from the oil present in the head cavities of sperm whales. These candles burned with a very bright light- so bright that a spermaceti candle flame was used as a standard light measure for photometry (the science of light measurement). Spermaceti candles were slightly cheaper than beeswax candles but are no longer made because of environmental concerns.
The ninetenth century brought the development of patented candlemaking machines, making candles available for the poorest homes. In an attempt to protect the industry, England passed a law forbidding the making of candles at home without the purchase of an exclusive license. At this time, a chemist named Michel Eugene Chevreul made an important discovery. He realized that tallow was not one substance but a composition of two fatty acids, stearic acid, and oleic acid, combined with glycerine to form a neutral non-flammable material.
By removing the glycerine from the tallow mixture, Chevreul invented a new substance called “stearine.” Stearine was harder than tallow and burned brighter and longer. It is this material known today as stearin or stearic acid that led to the improvement of candle quality. Stearin also made improvements in the manufacture of wicks possible. It put an end to the constant round of snuffing and trimming wicks once they were lit. Instead of being made of only twisted strands of cotton, wicks were now plaited tightly; the burned portion curled over and was completely consumed, rather than falling messily into the melting wax.
More improvements such as the addition of lime, palmatine, and paraffin developed in commercial candle manufacturer. Paraffin wax was extracted from crude oil. It equaled beeswax and spermaceti candles for brightness and hardness and were cheaper. Paraffin wax is still widely used today in commercial candle making.
The use of particularly small candles became so common in the church that they derive their name from their usage. The name “votive” comes from the Latin “votum” meaning prayer, desire, promise or vow.
Candles are unique in that although we no longer need them for the purpose they were invented, we continue to use them simply because of their mystique. The candle means more to us than mere wick, wax and flame.
Candles and centerpieces should be about two inches below the eye level of your guest. A candle flame flickering between your gaze and the person across the table is annoying, not romantic.
Light the candles just before the guests are seated, and allow them to burn until everyone stands.
White or ivory tapers are appropriate for any table, and of course they should be free from any fragrance. It is excessive to burn candles during sunny, daylight hours; they should be lit only at dusk, or later, or on overcast days when the table might otherwise be gloomy.
To extinguish a candle frame, use a long-handled candle snuffer. If you are obligated to blow out a candle, hold your cupped hand behind the flame so as to prevent spraying hot wax on your linens.
It is recommended that the tips of new candles be burned an inch or so to remove the “newness” from them before being placed on the table.