A Quick (and Fragranced) History of Candles

Why do we love candles? For me, there’s something so special about their slowness and simplicity. And the fact that they’ve been around for thousands of years. There’s a deep history of candles. A history that bears witness to the big moments and the small, as these simple household items have lit up the history of humankind.

It’s a history that started with a simple need. The need for light in physical darkness.

But it’s since evolved into something so much more than that, a more soulful need. As that same candle brings us light of a different, more meaningful kind.

Let There Be Light candle on a chest of drawers

Where did candles originate?

The history of candles started thousands of years ago. Although the exact story isn’t fully documented, it’s thought that candles originated amongst the Ancient Egyptians.

To light up their dark nights, the Ancient Egyptians would soak the spongy centre of reeds in melted animal fat and burn it. Although this wasn’t a candle in the modern sense of the term, there was no wick, it was the first use of a tool of its kind.

When was the candle invented?

It seems, as with many things in our history, that it was the Romans who first invented the wick candle that we know today. These were made from tallow – fat from cows or sheep – with a rolled papyrus “wick”.

Whilst the Romans were creating dipped tallow candles around 500BC, there’s also evidence that candles were being made from whale fat in China around 200BC and from boiling cinnamon in India. I think I know which scent I’d prefer!

Oil lamp with sunset background

The collapse of the Roman empire, and with it the easy availability of olive oil for oil lamps, saw an increased use of tallow candles across Europe. But it wasn’t until 1300 (or thereabouts) that the Tallow Chandlers Company of London was formed.

Although they were “natural candles”, tallow candles certainly weren’t the beautifully fragranced candles we know and love today.

Tallow candles created an incredibly unpleasant smell, especially during the manufacturing process. This led the creation of tallow candles to be banned in many European cities, with the more wealthy members of society favouring beeswax candles instead.

But beeswax was expensive… and soon became an option only for the elite.

Candles for everyone?

The industrial revolution opened a new chapter in the history of candles in 1834, when Joseph Morgan created a machine that would change the course of candle making for everyone.

This machine could (apparently) create 1,500 candles an hour and dramatically reduced the cost of candle production.

Shortly after, James Young opened the world’s first oil refinery and paraffin wax became available for use in candle production.

And so candles soon became an affordable option for everyone… regardless of wealth or rank.

The advent of modern candles

Of course, the discovery of electricity brought another new chapter for the history of candles.

Whilst its uptake was slow, the availability of electricity led to a decline in the use of candles for practice use. People favoured the more modern (and more convenient) alternative.

Yet candles still have a rather special place in modern life. From religious and cultural ceremonies, to celebrations (what’s a birthday cake without a candle on top?!) and… my personal favourite… relaxation and ambiance.

The evolution of modern candles also led to an evolution in their manufacturing. As we all pay better attention to the materials and ingredients we bring into our homes, so too are we paying attention to the wax used to create the candles we love so much.

Sarah May pouring wax

Long gone are the days of tallow wax (thank heavens!). Instead, “cleaner” ingredients such as soy wax are filling up our candle shelves and fragrancing our homes.

Although scented candles have been around nearly as long as candles themselves, they’ve grown in popularity over recent years.

We’ve started to recognise the power of scent in creating mood and harnessing memories. So much so… that 2020 saw the announcement of a new type of history project, unlike anything we’ve seen before.

A fragranced memory

One cold winter’s morning in 2020, I had my radio tuned into my morning news when I heard something that made me leap to attention….

It was the announcement of the Odeuropa project, which will see historians, artificial intelligence (AI) experts, chemists and perfumers from across Europe come together to create an archive of smells.

Yes, smells!

This encyclopedia of smells will allow us to travel back in time in a way that we’ve never been able to before. From the foul scents of industrial Britain to the fragrant memories of Marie Antoinette’s perfume, we’ll be able to connect with our past in a more real and more meaningful way than traditional history books permit.

What a beautiful project. That’s my sort of history!