November Tea Party Winners: Carrie Fancett Pagels' copy of The Great Lakes Lighthouse Brides Collection - Debbie Curto, Christmas tea - Andrea Stephens, Golden Tea body wash Joy Ellis, lighthouse earrings -- Pegg's SIL from Lake Ann and Perrianne Askew, Pegg Thomas's Leather journal - Shelia Hall, and Writing Prompts book goes to - Connie Porter Saunders

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Eighteenth Century Candle Making by Cynthia Howerter

Eighteenth-century colonists got up with the sun and worked until the sun went down in order to utilize the daylight. Once the sun slipped past the horizon, candles provided the only means of illumination - but it was dim lighting, at best, as seen in the photo below. 

Multiple candles provided the only lighting for this 18th century evening concert

Townspeople could purchase candles from a local tradesman known as a "chandler" or a merchant, but people living in the rural areas needed to make their own tapers.

Candles were made by using metal molds or by the dipping method. Molds produced uniformly shaped candles, but could only be made in small quantities.  

This pewter candle mold can produce 32 uniformly-made candles

Dipped candles were less uniform in shape, but several hundred could be made in an afternoon. Multiple wicks were repeatedly dipped into hot tallow until candles reached their desired thickness, then hung on a candle tree to harden. 

This young lad is dipping multiple candles into a kettle of hot beeswax

How could a candle-maker tell when a dipped candle had reached the desired diameter? He poked candles through a hole in a gauge - a piece of wood with different size holes that represented various candle diameters. When the candle fit perfectly in a hole, no more dippings were required for it.

This chandler is holding a wood gauge used to help make dipped candles a certain diameter

All candles require a wick to hold the flame. During the colonial period, wicks were made by twisting strings of flax and linen on a spinning wheel. Because twisted wicks do not burn away as the wax melts, they needed to be trimmed frequently with scissors.

Candle wicks were made by twisting flax and linen on a spinning wheel

Most colonists made candles from tallow or beeswax, although bayberry candles were also popular. 

Tallow candles are produced from animal fat and were used in country homes because fat could be readily acquired from cows, sheep, deer, or other animals. Butchering mostly took place during autumn, so candles made from tallow were usually made at that time.

Candle-making day

While tallow candles were inexpensive to make, they had a strong, objectionable odor and produced a lot of smoke as the candle burned. They also had a tendency to drip a lot. 

Beeswax candles were preferred by colonists because they had a pleasant scent and produced little smoke. They also burned brighter than tallow candles. Many rural colonists kept beehives as much for the sweet honey as the beeswax. After removing beeswax from a hive and scraping off as much honey as possible, the wax was melted and made into candles. 

Bayberry candles required an enormous amount of work. In the southern colonies, bayberries were picked from wax myrtle bushes in November. Ten pounds of the tiny greenish-gray berries produce one pound of bayberry wax. 

Tiny bayberries from a wax myrtle bush

It took colonists hours to hand-pick this amount. Although their herbal scent is heavenly, the amount of work and time required to make bayberry candles made them impractical for daily use.

Whether candles were made from tallow, beeswax, or bayberry wax, the candle making process was similar. The tallow or wax was heated in a kettle over a fire until it liquefied. Impurities could be removed by pouring the heated tallow or wax through muslin or cheesecloth. Then the purified fat or wax was either poured into candle molds or used for dipping. 

How long can candles burn? An 8-inch long tallow candle takes about 45-60 minutes to burn down while the same size beeswax candle burns down in about three-and-a-half hours. Most families would have used at least one candle per night. Considering that, it's easy to see that a single colonial household required lots of candles.

All photographs ©2017 Cynthia Howerter

Cynthia's been absent from Colonial Quills recently because she became a grandmother for the first time! Miss Reese Kelly made her debut into the world on July 31. Reese's middle name, Kelly, is a family surname that has been passed down by each generation of our family since the 1600s.   

Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter grew up playing in Fort Rice, a Revolutionary War fort owned by family members, and lived on land once called home by 18th century Oneida Chief Shikellamy in Pennsylvania. Hunting arrowheads and riding horses at break-neck speed across farm fields while pretending to flee from British-allied Indians provided exciting childhood experiences for Cynthia and set the stage for a life-long love of all things historical. A descendant of a Revolutionary War officer and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), history flows through Cynthia's veins.

Are you going through difficult times or know someone who is? Do you need encouragement to get through a tough situation? There's nothing like 25 true stories from people who have been in your shoes and succeeded. To purchase a copy from Amazon of the award-winning non-fiction anthology that Cynthia co-authored along with La-Tan Roland Murphy, click here > God's Provision in Tough Times   Available in paperback and Kindle.


  1. Cynthia, this is such an interesting topic and "illuminates" the difficult life the colonists endured! No wonder they had to make so many candles when they burned so quickly. No reading late at night, I'm sure! Thanks for the sweet photos!

    1. Don't you wonder where they stored the large supply of candles after they made them, Elaine?! The colonists truly had a difficult life.

    2. Yes, I do! I know they had candle boxes on their walls to keep several handy—and keep the mice from eating them! But where they stored the bulk of them, I do wonder.

  2. I agree with Elaine, very interesting post Cynthia. That's a lot of bayberries for those candles and a lot of work but would smell wonderful.
    Blessings, Tina

    1. Thank you, Mrs. Tina! After learning how much work went into making bayberry candles, I know I'll really appreciate them as I burn one!

  3. I can't imagine it, really. I need so much light in the evening to do tasks. Can you imagine trying to see at night by candlelight? Thanks Cynthia!

    1. Thank you, Debra! Once when our electricity was out for several days and nights, we had to use candles. Not much reading or chores got done once night fell, but we had a lot of lively conversations!

  4. This is why our ancestors got up with the sun and went to bed when it set. :) Just a minor note, flax and linen are the same thing. Flax is the plant whose fibers are spun to make linen. Spun flax = linen, but often the two terms are used interchangeably.

  5. Have enjoyed your site very much. Lots of useful information and the added bonus of giving us an idea of how Colonial life really was.

    Would you have any source or information on taper candles for Wax Jacks? I have an antique Wax Jack that I want to display during Living History events. The popular sources for this kind of candle are all promoting it as an "Eco Friendly" long burning source of light rather than the original purpose of melting sealing wax.

    Any info on where to buy period correct taper for this purpose, or how to make would be greatly appreciated.


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