I was at a great loss for candles; so that as soon as ever it was dark, which was generally by seven o'clock, I was obliged to go to bed ……… The only remedy I had was, that when I had killed a goat, I saved the tallow, and with a little dish of clay, which I baked in the sun, to which I added a wick of some oakum, I made me a lamp; and this gave me light, though not a clear steady light like a candle."
The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1719
Light has always been a symbol for move out of ignorance and into the light of knowledge. As long as we can manufacture and control light, then we are no longer bound by the seasons, or forced to work from sunrise to sunset. Light gives us extra time for work and play, and the time to create during the hours free from chores or work.
The candle was one of the earliest forms of artificial light, and in the period in which I write, most candles were tallow. I need to continually think of this whenever I write a night-time scene, or a winter scene. We take the availability of good light so much for granted.
The Stink of Tallow
Tallow was cheap animal fat, usually the waste material from meat - hence often sheep or bullock fat.
The tallow was prepared by first chopping the fat into small pieces and then boiling it up in a large copper to detach the muscle or membrane from the fat. The resultant mush was pressed to extract the 'juice', or tallow, and the remains or 'greaves' fed to the dogs or pigs, and even to the geese that were being fattened up for market.To produce a pure light, the chandler must wrestle with dead animal carcasses, and the associated smell and mess. For this reason, chandlery was perceived as a very low class trade, and the chandlers premises were often located near the tanneries and slaughterhouses, and close to a river with access to water. The process reminds me that for every 'light' there is the often invisible 'dark'.
Fir candles, made of a long thin splinter of fir, were commonly used in Scotland, and a fir candle holder was known as a "puirman"(poorman). But tallow candles were the common household candle in early England, and by the 13th century, candle-making had become a guild craft in England and France, controlled by ancient City Livery Companies. The Tallow Chandlers Company, one of the London Guilds, sill exists. It was formed in about 1300 to regulate and manage candle-making. Over the next 150 years they expanded in membership and influence, until King Edward IV granted them a coat of arms in 1456.
In rural areas, where no Livery Company existed, chandlers would sometimes go from house to house with their moulds, making candles from the kitchen fats saved for that purpose, or in smaller towns they made and sold their own candles from a shop. Candle-making was usually done in winter by a householder, as livestock was generally slaughtered around Martinmas (November 11th) to save the expense of over-wintering them. Tallow candles could be made for you in your own home with your own saved drippings by an itinerant tallow chandler (tallow chandlers and wax chandlers had separate guilds, and jealously guarded their products).
Candles, especially tallow ones, were kept in a wooden or metal box hung on the wall in order to protect them from vermin, as being animal fat, mice regarded them as food. Being away from the fire also prevented the candles wilting and bending in heat.
Unlike animal-based tallow, beeswax burned pure and cleanly, without producing a smoky flame. It also had a pleasant sweet smell rather than the foul, acrid odor of tallow. However, it took an entire honeycomb's worth of beeswax to make one 4" candle, so it was very expensive. Beeswax candles were widely used for church ceremonies. The beeswax itself had a religious significance in 17th Century England. One story is that bees were absent from the Garden of Eden and so escaped Eve's sin. Another is that medieval monks thought that bees reproduced by immaculate conception, like the Virgin Mary, and so the beeswax of a church candle came to signify purity.
The Revolutionary Art of Plaiting a Wick
The absorbency and efficiency of a wick depended on the number of individual strands. Adding or subtracting a few extra strands of animal hair or hemp fibre made the difference between a candle that burned well, or one that guttered or dripped. The wicks were made from twisted threads of flax, cotton, or hemp, and trimming the wick to get rid of candle "snuffs" was essential to keeping your candle burning well, or it would flare and smoke. I often imagine my characters having to trim the wick in the middle of conversations, or tackling writing a letter.
The best wicks were invented later in the 19th century, and revolutionised the candle. They were plaited so they curled as they burned to ensure that the tip burnt off during use so they didn't have to be continually trimmed, thus ensuring you could carry out your task uninterrupted. To achieve this curl, the plait or braid of a wick was woven asymmetrically, with a few extra strands in one of the threads. After being cut to length, the wicks were dipped in molten wax so that one end was stiff enough to poke through the hole at the bottom of the mould, and then the moulds were filled.
The Fall of Tallow
The tallow chandler's fortunes declined at the end of the 17th century. New materials, such as spermacetti (from whale blubber) and paraffin wax, replaced tallow. Then in the late 19th Century gas lighting arrived, twelve times as bright as a candle, only to be replaced by electricity twenty years later. These eras are comparatively short, when you think that we had many hundreds of years where most of our light was by the dim smoky haze of tallow candles.
More about lighting? Lucy Worsley has a post about domestic lighting here.
Thank you for reading. Find my latest book, Pleasing Mr Pepys, here.
At Day's Close: A History of Nighttime - Roger Ekirch