Candles were once used for illumination, along with torches, lamp oil and tallow. They are still frequently used today in churches, at home or at parties to create a relaxing or festive atmosphere. In medieval times, candles were often marked with the word “light”. The term candle was introduced only later.
Oil and tallow lamps can be considered the ancestors of candles. Wax torches came into use as an alternative light source at the end of the third century B.C.; candles composed of tallow, pitch and wax were introduced to the Romans around the second century A.C. Surprisingly, candles were unknown to Greeks before that time.
It was above all the need of the Christian Church in the Middle Ages that led to use beeswax as raw material for the production of candles, making it a valuable commodity. Outside the churches and the noble houses, wood chip, reeds or tallow were often used for the poor.
As of 1061 there are records in France of a corporation known as “Shooters of Lights”. Records from the fourteenth century also disclosed a corporation called “Melters of Candles” in Hamburg. Two societies of candle traders were found to be in existence in London during in the late Middle Ages; they were traders for wax and traders or tallows.
Tallow candles at that time were bleached with arsenic trioxide. It was not until 1725, spermaceti was used the production of candles. Spermaceti is a white raw material, which was used primarily for the construction of luxury candles.
The first stearin candle was produced between 1818 and 1820 by Henri Braconnot and Simonin from Manjot. In 1831, Mr. De Milly introduced a number of improvements in those products such as dipping wicks with saline solutions, preventing the crystallization of stearin and introducing the concept of shaping the candles by pressing and melting the wax (Milly’s candles). Shortly after the invention of paraffin in 1839, this paraffin candles were produced by Seligue in Paris and by Young in Manchester (England).
In different cultures the religious rite of lighting up candles has a profound meaning. A lighted candle symbolizes for example the soul that shines in the dark world of the dead. In Christianity the lighting of the Paschal Candle is the resurrection of the Lord, which signifies the triumph of Jesus over death. The lighting of candles a few days before the winter solstice had a similar meaning in Nordic and Germanic cultures: the candle was supposed to encourage the sun to return and to triumph over darkness. This ancient Nordic custom survives today, but with a Christian meaning, in the light up of candles of Advent and for Christmas. Lights are placed on the graves headstones in memory of the dead (especially at All Saints).