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Illuminating Origins: Who Invented Candles?

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

As a candlemaker (chandler) that also loves history, one day I wondered to myself who invented the candle? I recalled a field trip from middle school where a woman dressed in pioneer garb was demonstrating how early settlers made candles by dipping the wicks into the wax. There were no thermometers, scales, beakers, none of the modern tools I use to create candles. I fired up Google and started to dig in to answer the question, who invented the candle?

Although the Romans are given credit, there is no one person that invented candles which have been used for over 5000 years!

In Ancient times:

  • Romans dipped rolled papyrus into animal fat or beeswax.

  • Egyptians soaked reeds in animal fat (tallow) for a torch.

  • Early Chinese molded wax made from insects and seeds with a rice paper wick.

  • The Chinese would also dry a fish, called the candlefish, to burn as their body fat during spawning was so high they would burn. I will not be making a candlefish scented candle!

  • India was creating a wax from boiling the fruits of the cinnamon tree, I vote they should be given credit for the best smelling candle of Ancient Times.

Ancient style Roman dipped candles
Photo of Roman Dipped Candles

During the Middle Ages

  • The most common wax was still tallow (animal fat) but churches and upper class could afford the cleaner burning, better smelling beeswax candles that were introduced.

  • All candles were made by dipping until the 1400's when a French inventor created a mold for taper candles.

Dipped colonial candles on a drying rack
Colonial Style Dipped Candles

Colonial Times

  • Candles were still made by dipping and using tallow

  • For a time the colonists were making wax with berries of bayberry bushes which produced a sweet smelling wax, but the process was tedious.

  • Soon a new type of wax came along, spermaceti, a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil which became abundant, did not smell bad and produced a brighter light, it was harder than tallow or beeswax.

Author Elaine Marie Cooper Has a great post about candles in Colonial America at Heroes, Heroines, and History

The 19th Century

  • advances were made such as the invent of paraffin wax in the 1850's.

  • Synthetic paraffin wax was introduced commercially after World War II as one of the products obtained in the Fischer–Tropsch reaction, which converts coal gas to hydrocarbons

  • With the invention of the lightbulb the popularity of candles declined until the 1980's when they surged as a decorative home accessory.

Candles Today

  • According to the National Candle Association more than a billion pounds of wax is used each year to produce candles with over 10,000 scents.

  • Approximately 35% of candle sales occur during the Christmas/Holiday season

  • Container and jar candles are currently the most popular types of candles with American consumers.

  • Candle industry research indicates that the most important factors affecting candle sales are scent, color, cost and shape.

In 2021 a small-town chandler combined a love of history and candles and Gold Rush Wax Co was born.

Thank you for reading!

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