Nature Bulletin No. 590 Febraury 6, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
The first candles probably consisted of dried rushes soaked in grease.
Homemade rushlights were commonly used in England as late as 1800
because, although they smoked and smelled horribly, they were so
cheap. In the Bible, candles are mentioned several times but there is no
information on how or of what they were made.
Eventually someone discovered the method of making a "tallow dip"
with a wick running longitudinally through its center. The wick -- a few
threads of flax, hemp, or cotton, lightly twisted or plaited -- was dipped
in melted tallow and allowed to cool, again and again, until the candle
had a desired thickness.
During colonial times in this country, every housewife made a supply of
candles in autumn. Candle rods, each with a row of wicks, were
repeatedly dipped in big iron kettles of boiling water and melted tallow,
That was an all-day back-breaking job. Neater results were obtained by
pouring the tallow into pewter molds made for from 6 to 24 candles.
In most pioneer homes of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, bits of
tallow were carefully saved, and candlemaking -- by dipping or in
molds -- was an important household chore. Bought cotton twist, flax
fibers, or the silky down from milkweed pods, were used as wicks.
Finer candles, with a perfumed scent and more "backbone", were made
with wax obtained from the bayberry or wax myrtle, and with tallow
mixed with powdered gum camphor. Fancy striped effects were
achieved by using the red juice of pokeberries, green from wild nettles,
yellow from alder bark, and other natural dyestuffs.
Apparently, beeswax was not used in making candles until about 300
A.D. Subsequently, by canon law, candles used in certain rituals of the
Roman Catholic Church must contain not less than 51 percent beeswax.
The remainder may be a vegetable or a mineral wax but not tallow.
Finer candles for such rites are made of 56-2/3 or 100 percent beeswax.
There are but two small candle-making plants in the Chicago region.
Both make candles only for religious purposes. Those for Greek
Orthodox Churches are composed entirely of paraffin and one size is 3-
l/2 inches in diameter and 6 feet tall! Paraffin came into general use
after the discovery of petroleum oil, from which it is distilled, 100 years
ago in Pennsylvania.
Most of the candles used in this country are made in Syracuse, NY.,
where the industry was founded in 1855 by Francis X. Baumer, a
Bavarian. Other Germans located there and followed his example.
Using ingenuous machinery, the big companies now make about 3500
different kinds of candles for a great variety of uses. In addition to
tallow, paraffin and beeswax, the materials used include mineral waxes
from Utah, Germany, Poland and Spain; carnauba wax from a palm in
Brazil; a wax created by certain insects feeding on trees in China; oil
from palms on the west coast of Africa; bayberry wax; and two
products, spermacetic and cetin, obtained from the huge sperm whale.
In the Merchandise Mart here, two Syracuse companies have
fascinating displays of candles in a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes
and colors. There are more candles used today than ever before, not
only in churches and synagogues r but in hotels, restaurants and homes
They have become a symbol of elegance.
This bulletin about candles appropriately marks our 15th anniversary.
Bulletin No. 1 appeared on February 1, 1945. Unfortunately, the back
issues are not available. We suggest that you save and bind your copies.
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Update: June 2012