On this page, I want to take a look at beeswax candles, the true Rolls Royce of the candle world.
A Short History of Candles
For thousands of years, beeswax has been used by man, mostly for candles. Evidence of beeswax candle use has been found on the Greek island of Crete, and also in Egypt, both dating from 3000BC, according to the book “The Magical Power of the Saints” by Ray T. Malbrough. Evidence of candle use in Egypt goes back to 400BC, and candles made from whale fat in around 200BC were discovered in the tomb of the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang. The Romans are thought to have come up with the idea of putting a wick through the candle. Plutarch, one of the Roman priests at the temple in Delphi, the site of the Delphic Oracle, was reputed to have said “When the candles are out all women are fair”.
In Europe, beeswax candles first appeared in the Middle Ages. At that time wax chandlers (candle makers) were important people and even had their own “guild” or trade association, explained by the fact that in those days, candles were the main source of artificial light so were of course an extremely important part of everybody’s daily existence. Although beeswax candles gave off little smoke and smelled sweetly, the raw material was in short supply and most candles continued to be made from tallow (animal fat) as they had been for many centuries. These candles were cheaper, but also foul-smelling and would spit and smoke. It is no surprise that beeswax candles were valued more highly and mainly used by the rich.
Candle manufacturing did not change much from the Middle Ages right up until the 19th century, when in 1830, a Scotsman William Wilson formed Price & Co. in London to make candles. Although by this time some of the streets of London were already lit by gas lamps, they were not in common use. Price & Co. really started to shake up the candle making industry, and by 1858 had patented over 100 inventions relating to candle manufacturing.
Oil was discovered in Burma in 1854, and one of its byproducts, paraffin wax, would further change the candle making industry forever. Price & Co. imported oil from Burma and started to make candles out of paraffin wax. These new paraffin candles were far less smoky and smelly than tallow, and cheaper than beeswax. So great were the commercial advantages that by 1900, 90% of candles were made from paraffin wax – and at this time most of the candles in the world were made by Price and Co.
As the 20th century wore on, gas lighting was replaced by electricity and candles looked more obsolete than ever. Price and Co. continued candle making but diversified into oil products as the industry declined and candles evolved from an essential source of light into the decorative product we know today.
Despite the proliferation of paraffin wax candles since the 19th century, there is still a solid demand for beeswax candles, and you don’t need an oil refinery to make ‘em!
Beeswax Candles, Paraffin Candles, Scented Candles and Your Health
As mentioned in the history of candles above, most candles are made nowadays from paraffin, a crude oil extract. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report in 2001 that concluded burning nine (paraffin) candles in one room would lead to higher levels of pollutants in your home than would be legal outdoors. The same report stated that scented candles are more likely to give off soot than unscented candles. Beeswax candles are known to give off very little soot compared to conventional paraffin candles, so these are an even better option if you want to prevent those sooty marks on your furniture and walls.
Many people use scented candles for therapeutic reasons, but because of the volatility of the scented oils, scented candles can be much worse polluters of the air in your home than unscented ones – the burning is very effective at releasing the volatile pollutants into the air. Remember that in true aromatherapy, the essential oils would never be heated or burned. It is true to say that many scented candles do not pollute the air, but unfortunately it is very difficult to tell just by looking at the label whether you have a good or a bad one, because there is no legal requirement to list the ingredients.
Because of all this, my advice is this – stick to using unheated essential oils for aromatherapy. When you want candles, always buy or make them from pure beeswax, with no scent. The beeswax will have its own sweet scent, and one that is totally natural. When using these candles or any others for that matter, trim the wicks to ¼ inch before and after use to make sure there is no smoking, and snuff them rather than blowing them out.
Candle Idioms and Phrases
There are many interesting sayings to do with candles, because of their long association with mankind. Let’s take a look at a few, but first, the word candle itself. It comes from the Latin word candela, meaning a light or a torch. This word in turn comes from the verb candere, to shine. Now for those sayings:
- Burning the candle at both ends – nowadays, this means to work and play too hard. Originally, it meant getting up before dawn and going to bed after dusk, which explains the fuller version of the expression, “burning the candle at both ends of the day”. The original phrase has nothing to do with lighting the wick at each end of a candle, although people often claim this.
- Not fit to hold a candle to – when candles gave the only light, one of the most menial of a servant’s duties was to hold a candle while a more senior servant performed some chore or other. If someone was so useless that they were thought incapable even of this lowly task, they could be described as not fit to hold a candle to.
- The cake’s not worth the candle – means that the result is not worth the effort you put into it.
- Bell, book and candle – this 9th century phrase describes excommunication from the Catholic Church, where the priest would ring a bell, close the holy book and snuff out a candle in a final dramatic flourish.
- To dip one’s wick – I will leave the explanation of this one to your imagination in case I get taken off the air!
- To get on one’s wick – this means to get on one’s nerves, with “wick” being a substitute for a less polite term!
Next we have a beautiful saying from a former First Lady:
“It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
And finally in this section a couple of jokes. Now jokes about candles are numerous, and it has to be said most of them would get this web site banned! But here are two innocent ones from Stephen Wright (U.S. actor/writer) that made me laugh:
“The other day when I was walking through the woods, I saw a rabbit standing in front of a candle making shadows of people on a tree.”
“Last week the candle factory burned down. Everyone just stood around and sang Happy Birthday.”
Safety and Candles
On that note, I want to talk about candles and fire. Each year many people damage their property and themselves, sometimes fatally, because of candles in their homes, so I want to remind you of a couple of safety tips in case you forgot them:
- Candles should be placed where they cannot fall over or be knocked over by things like drapes blowing in the breeze
- Place candles on a non-flammable surface so that the flame won’t ignite your furniture when it reaches the bottom of the candle
- Candles should be out of reach of children and pets – remember that cats are particularly agile and curious!
- Do not leave the candle burning when you go out of the room for more than a few moments – and certainly never go out, or to bed, with a candle still lit. They are romantic in the bedroom but if you fall asleep it may be more than just the romance that is dead!
- Don’t go waving the candle around when it is lit – you’ll give yourself a wax face mask or worse.
- Don’t place candles in a draft because they will not burn properly and may blow over.
- Make sure nothing can fall onto the candle flame, such as papers on a shelf, loose drapes or you.
- Be careful not to lean over a burning candle, or to reach over one. One of our readers recently was standing next to a friend who leaned over one and nearly ignited her long hair! And at festive dinners you can burn your sleeve reaching across a table with burning candles on it.
Buying Beeswax Candles
You can get beeswax candles in just about any size, shape and color you like. They also come artificially scented if that’s what you are looking for.
Personally, I like to go for the more natural product, and I definitely avoid the scented ones because I much prefer the gentle, sweet aroma of the real thing. If you want to stick with a totally natural product, always look for 100% pure beeswax candles and not those made with a blend of other waxes, and look for unbleached label, or an assurance that there are no added scents or colors.
Incidentally, the color of natural beeswax candles will vary according to the source of the wax. Colors vary from cream, lemon and amber through to a rich brown.
As with all honey and bee products, always try to look for signs that you are dealing with a reputable supplier, such as good reviews; contact details on the web site, and an established reputation in their niche – as opposed to a general discounter for example. This is especially important with candles because of the toxic gases that can be released by sub-standard products.
Of course, you may want to make your own candles. If this is you, please take a look at my article on how to make them from beeswax sheets.