The Evolution of the Candle

An early advertisement of Price’s Candles, a candle retailer founded in 1830, now the largest supplier of candles in the UK.

If the incandescent light bulb wasn’t commercially available until only a hundred years ago, what did we use for lighting before then? Gas and oil lamps, and of course, candles! In fact, the terminology we use today as a unit for measuring the intensity of light from a source is actually called “candlepower” (although more often we use “candela” which is based on candlepower). So, one candlepower is the amount of light created by a single candle!

Although the candle has not evolved much after it’s first documented use, it’s history dates back thousands of years…

3000 B.C.E to 500 B.C.E

According to the National Candle Association, it was the ancient Egyptians who are the first documented people to use the primitive form of a candle, a rushlight (essentially a miniature torch), about five thousand years ago. They soaked the dried pith of reeds in animal fat and used these devices for general lighting and celebratory rituals. However, it isn’t until around 500 BCE, about 2,500 years later in Ancient Rome, that we see evidence of the first true candle, made of both animal fat and a wick.​

200 B.C.E.

​In Asia, candles are first employed at around 200 BCE. Various recipes are used throughout this continent to make candles.

In China, beeswax or wax from indigenous insects are used and the wicks are made from rolled rice paper. In Japan, wax is created from melting tree nuts. In India, cinnamon is melted down to make the wax.

Across the Pacific Ocean, in North America, the form of a candle takes an entirely different shape. Evidence shows that native peoples used a fatty fish called the Eulachon as a candle by simply stringing it on a wick or by placing the fish on a stick and lighting it. This is so common, that the Eulachon fish becomes known as “candlefish.”

The earliest surviving candles from in the German Alps, circa 6th-7th century. Photo Credit: Bullenwächter via Wikipedia Creative Commons

​10th to 14th Centuries

​Evidence shows that in Asia during this time, people begin putting candles to more creative uses. The Chinese commonly use candles as a device to mark time, a slightly less precise version of our modern clocks; markings along the wax indicate how much time has passed. The most sophisticated candle clock, however, is crafted in the early 13th century by a Muslim engineer and inventor named Al-Jazari. His clock has an actual time display as well as pulleys and weights.

An illustration of Al-Jazari’s Candle Clock. Taken from his book: The book of knowledge of ingenious mechanical devices, published in 1206.

​In parts of Europe, oil lamps are commonplace until the collapse of the Roman Empire, which leads to a reduction of the olive oil trade. The melting of tallow (animal fat) to create candles is a lot of work, but cheap and becomes the main form of lighting alongside torches and rushlights. Unfortunately, burning tallow produces such noxious odors a few cities ban the use of tallow in candles outright. Wealthy families and churches continue to use candles, albeit they are made of beeswax. Beeswax candles are an extravagant commodity, and one the masses cannot afford.

It is the late Middle Ages, and candlemaking has become recognized as a guild craft by the 13th century in England and France. Parts of Paris and London see the implementation of candles as street lighting.​

15th to the 19th Century

​It is now the 15th century, and France’s chandlers introduce a method of moulding, which allows tallow candles to be formed in many sizes and shapes. Chandlers throughout France and England setup small workshops consisting of masters and their several apprentices. Gordon Phillips writes in his book Seven Centuries of Light: “These dips, rushlights and candles were essential to normal life that servants in more affluent families expect candles as part of their wages. Each allowance was jealously guarded according to the rank and importance of the person and the number of candles allotted to a steward, butler or secretary was watched as carefully and enviously by fellow servants as a modern bureaucrat’s desk or carpet size.”​

19th Century: The Industrial Era

The 19th century does more to push the evolution of the candle in next fifty years than the previous centuries combined.

The whaling industry in Europe booms, and Spermaceti candles begin to dominate the industry. Spermaceti is a waxy substance derived from the head of a sperm whale. In fact, the term candlepower originates from this particular type of candle. This type of wax is preferred over other waxes because when burned, spermaceti does not give off the acrid odor that traditional tallow candles are notorious for. However, these are still expensive to produce given they come from a large mammal which needs to be hunted and retrieved from the oceans.

There are still more technological and scientific inventions abound in the next decades. Various chemical procedures such as distillation are introduced in this century. Distillation of fat separates animal fatty acids (the actual cause of the acrid odor in candles) from stearic acid. Stearic acid is critical in the mass production of candles because it gives candle wax the hardness and consistency required to keep it’s form. It also minimizes the smoke when the candle burns. The process of distillation along with the invention of a machine in 1834 that allows for the continuous production of moulded candles, help pave the way to the industrialization of candle manufacturing, and candles are finally available to the masses.

The mid-19th century also sees the commercialization of paraffin oil, a substance derived from refining crude petroleum. Because paraffin is cheap and odorless, it quickly becomes a mainstay as the base for candle wax.

Finally, only a few short decades after the industrialization of candles, around 1920, the incandescent light bulb is available to be bought and sold by the public, making the functional purpose of a candle obsolete in most of the Western hemisphere. Candles after this point are always sold as non-essential decorative items. 

A look inside Price’s Patent Candle, early 1900s


Today, candles are still popular decorative items. So popular that the National Candle Association reports that “U.S. retail sales of candles are estimated at approximately $3.2 billion annually.” They also report that for all the candles sold in the U.S., a billion pounds of wax are used in the production of these candles. The latter statement could be interpreted as a dismal fact however, if one considers that beyond adding fragrance to candles, the industry as a whole, has not evolved significantly since the middle 19th century. Though paraffin is derived from a non-renewable resource and emits toxic fumes when burned, it is still the most common material used for candle wax.

Recently though, soybean wax has emerged as an amazing new candle material. Soy wax is non-toxic and holds fragrance very well. More importantly, it is extracted from renewable resources and it burns for a long time, making for a doubly eco-friendly product. Due to the high cost of sourcing soybean wax and the material’s fickle nature (because it is an organic product), soy wax is not as popular as paraffin, but it is my prediction, that in the next few years, though they haven’t been around too long, with enough demand, we will see soy candles make a larger dent in the candle’s ancient history.

We may no longer require these small objects for lighting our homes, our streets and our shops, but to me, candles will never become obsolete because candles are essential for creating a cozy ambiance.

Works Cited

Golan, Tal. “The Paraffin Wars.” Laws of Men and Laws of Nature: The History of Scientific Expert Testimony in England and America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004. 89–90. Print.

“History of Candles.”National Candle Association. National Candle Association, n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.

Phillips, Gordon. “Toilers in Tallow.” Seven Centuries of Light: The Tallow Chandlers Company. Cambridge: Granta Editions, 1999. 69–75. Print.

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