A Brief History of Wax and Candles

September 16, 2017

A Brief History of Wax and Candles

I teach a high school senior English course entitled “Gods, Monsters, and the Apocalypse,” which is incredibly fun for me. I am always looking for new lessons to integrate into my curriculum. It’s the beginning of the school year and I always start with Greek Mythology, and I was researching new information, I started thinking about candles and wondered if there was any connection with Ancient Greece (since so much of the humanities and sciences are derived from Ancient Greece).

Interestingly, there is not much reference to candles in Greek mythology. There is man’s first fire, which was given to humanity by Prometheus, the Titan, during the great war between the gods and titans.  The second reference is to Daedalus, the inventor who was also a revered intellect. He used wax to create the wings he made for his son, Icarus, to help them escape the labyrinth that King Minos trapped them in (side note – Daedalus actually created the labyrinth, but it was so complicated, the sky was the only way out).

According to the National Candle Association: “The Egyptians were using wicked candles in 3,000 B.C., but the ancient Romans are generally credited with developing the wicked candle before that time by dipping rolled papyrus repeatedly in melted tallow or beeswax. The resulting candles were used to light their homes, to aid travelers at night, and in religious ceremonies.”

Tallow, or rendered animal fat (most commonly cow today, but could be any game), is actually still used in modern soap-making (not by us, we’re vegan makers), but offered numerous uses throughout time as no part of an animal was wasted. The tallow was used in candles, but probably had an awful smell while being burned, so upon the discovery of beeswax in the Middle Ages, beeswax was immediately preferred. Though, like today, beeswax was expensive and reserved only for those who were affluent enough to afford it.

The late 18th century brought the whaling industry, especially to the Americas, which carried through to the early 20th century. “The sperm whale was also used for its spermaceti—the wax taken from the oil of this huge mammal. This wax was used extensively as the fishing industry began to expand. The spermaceti candle was popular because it had no acrid odor, did not soften in summer temperatures, and burned evenly” (Encylcopedia.com). Whale blubber was popular not only for making candles but was the base of many original cosmetics, especially lipstick. The blubber was so incredibly versatile that whales nearly became extinct until the whaling ban. From blubber came the extraction of stearin acids combined with petroleum to create paraffin waxes, which are still popular today. In the late 19th century

The late 19th century’s discovery of electricity brought a decline of candle-making for light, but the early 20th century saw a boost for candles again when people wanted candles for decoration. Bayberry wax was soon discovered and became quite popular, especially around Christmas-time, for its unique earthy-scent. While bayberry wax did gain in popularity, especially as awareness for natural and plant-based goods grew in demand, the difficult rendering of the wax made it extremely expensive.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Michael Richards of Cedar Rapids, Iowa (USA)  invented the use of soy wax candles. He sought to find a natural, sustainable resource for candle-making that was cheaper than bayberry wax or beeswax. Burning much cleaner than paraffin candles, much cheaper than bayberry or beeswax candles, along with being a sustainable source, soy wax candles soon became the consumer favorite and exactly why we create our candles with soy wax.

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