Origins of ordinary things: Candles

Candles are a common source of illumination around the world. They are used as cheap alternatives to electricity, for ceremonies such as birthdays and prayer, and even during wellness activities such as aromatherapy.

They are believed to have been in existence as early as 5,000 years ago. The National Candle Association of the United States cites their use in ancient Egypt whereby Egyptians made rushlights from the pithy core of reeds melted in animal fat. However, these early versions had no wicks.

Ancient Romans are credited with creating a wick for the candle by rolling papyrus repeatedly in tallow, beeswax or olive oil.

According to web-based Encyclopedia, beeswax was preferred to tallow because the former emitted a pleasant smell and didn’t have a smoky smell. This made beeswax candles expensive and the privilege of a few. They were mostly used during religious ceremonies and in the homes of wealthy people. 

The fall of the Roman Empire resulted in the shortage of olive oil supply. Because of this, according to web-based History of Lighting, candles made from tallow became more common.

During the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century), candle making became a business. People would save fats and wait for candle makers, known as chandlers to come to their home to make candles for them. People were still experimenting with different materials for candle making during this time. This is according to Wikipedia an encyclopedia.

There was a breakthrough during the 18th century when it was discovered that candles could be made by crystallizing the sperm oil of a whale to make wax. The challenge was that whales had to be hunted to extract the oil. In the 19th century, according to Britannica an encyclopedia French chemist Michael Chevreul discovered a method for extracting stearic acid from animal fat to make hard, durable and clean-burning wax candles.

Another inventor, James Young, distilled coal to obtain paraffin wax. This became the commonest material for making candles because it was cheap and it burned cleanly.

In 1834, English inventor Joseph Morgan developed a candle-making machine, which resulted in mass production. For this reason, candles became affordable. According to Britanniica an encyclopedia it was also during the 19th century that wicks made out of braided strands of cotton were made.

Candles were popularly used for lighting in homes until kerosene lamps came into being and eventually a light bulb was invented in 1879. Since then, they were marketed as a decorative item. With industrialization, it was possible to add precise measurements of color and fragrance.

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