Candles have been used for thousands of years and, up until the early 1900s, they were our single source for artificial light. They also have a rich tradition in religious services in many faiths throughout history. Today, the candle is no longer our single source of light, but is used abundantly in religious services as well as in birthday celebrations, holidays, and home decorations.
Originally, candles were made from tallow, which was extracted from cattle and sheep, in the early Egyptian and Roman times. These early candles burned poorly and probably smelled even worse. The Roman Empire was the first to provide evidence of a candle that resembles the candle today. They melted the tallow until it was a liquid and poured it over fibers of flax, hemp, and/or cotton, which were used as a wick. These candles were used in religious ceremonies as well as lighting for their travel and homes.
During the Middle Ages candles became more prevalent in worship. It was at this time that beeswax was used to make candles. These beeswax candles were made much like the Romans made their candles with tallow. Beeswax was a drastic improvement from the tallow, but limited quantities were available, which made it expensive limiting it to clergy and the upper class.
In Colonial America the early settlers discovered that they were able to obtain a very appeasing wax by boiling the berries from the bay-berry shrub. This wax created a very sweet smelling and good burning candle; however the process of making the bayberry wax was very tedious and tiresome.
In the 18th century, the whaling industry thrived and as a result, whale oil was available in large quantities. Spermaceti wax was derived from the whale oil and was used as a replacement for tallow, beeswax, and bayberry wax. The spermaceti wax candle did emit a rather unpleasant smell, but the wax was hard enough to hold shape in the hot summer months.
The 19th century was a defining time for the candles and candle making - the first patented candle making machines were introduced. This breakthrough allowed candles to reach the homes of all classes. It was also right around this same time that a chemist named Michael Eugene Chevreul identified for the first time that tallow or animal fat consisted of various fatty acids. One of the fatty acids he identified was stearine (stearic acid). In 1825, Chevreul and a chemist named Joseph Gay Lussac patented a process for candle making from crude stearic. This process drastically improved the quality of candles.
The braided wick was also invented in the 19th century. Wicks before this time were made simply of twisted strands of cotton, which burned very poorly and needed constant maintenance. The braided wick was tightly plaited and a portion of the wick curled over and enabled it to be completely consumed.
It was in the middle of the 19th century that paraffin wax was first used in a candle in Battersea, UK. This led to the commercial production of paraffin, which is an oil distillate. Paraffin burned clean, bright, and without an odor. The paraffin was also blended with stearic acid, which hardened the wax and created a superior and cheaper candle.