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The Wick’s Tale

Libi Astaire

We’ve come a long way since our homes were lit by a fire burning in the hearth. Yet even though we can light a room at the flick of a switch, flames still fascinate. Perhaps that’s why candles are still a growing industry several millennia after someone lit the first wick.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ancient people knew all about burning logs to create light and warmth, but a burning log wasn’t portable. Rushlights made from twigs or reeds soaked in grease could be carried from place to place, but once lit they would burn for only 15 to 45 minutes, depending upon their size. So if you wanted to stay up late and read the ancient equivalent of Family First, you either had to burn the midnight oil, literally, in your oil lamp — or invent the candle.

A key element of a candle is the wick that sits inside the block of wax. It’s thought that the Egyptians first came up with the idea of repeatedly dipping a wick in natural fat, melted tallow (animal fat), or beeswax, which is, as its name sounds, a sticky substance made by honeybees. We don’t know what the Egyptians used for their wicks — perhaps rolls of papyrus, like the Romans.

By the Middle Ages people were using twisted strands of linen and the craft of making candles had grown to such an extent that there were two professional guilds in charge of supplying European homes with light: wax chandlers, who made their own candles and sold them in their shops, and ordinary chandlers, who went from door to door and made candles in a person’s home from the wax and grease the housewife had saved up.

These early candles were far from perfect. Tallow could become rancid, and when it did, it smelled. In hot weather a candle could start to melt and bend before it was even lit. During the 1700s, candlemakers began using whale oil to make wax, which solved both these problems. More light was shed during the 1800s, when stearic acid was combined with paraffin wax to create a candle that was durable, odorless, and burned cleanly. Once a machine was invented that could roll out uniformly molded candles, the candle was nearly perfect. Ironically, that moment occurred about the same time that the lightbulb was invented, and the demand for candles soon plummeted.

Yet candles didn’t entirely disappear, since they continued to be used for religious purposes and to light homes in places where electricity was scarce. By the 1980s, candles were enjoying a new life as decorative items and inexpensive gifts. Today, a commercial candle manufacturer might offer thousands of different candles in his catalogue, thanks to all the various scents, colors, shapes, and sizes. New waxes are being invented, too, including the popular soybean wax, which is softer and burns more slowly than paraffin. And since candles are a $2 billion-a-year industry, this successful shidduch between wax and wick will likely continue to light up our rooms and brighten our special occasions for many years to come.


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