Making Candles in Colonial Times

Candlemaking in Colonial times was a necessity to survival.

When the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower, they brought with them skills necessary to survive in a new land.  Because there was so much work to do, and never enough daylight to do it in, a means of lighting the night was needed.  Candles have been made by humans since before the time of Jesus, and in Colonial times it was the responsibility of the women to do this.

Many generations including Colonials made candles from rendered animal fat called tallow.  Tallow was readily available and could be made in large batches.  The tallow was melted and candles were made by dipping wicks over and over again to form taper candles.  These tallow candles dripped, smoked and smelled bad.  They also gave off a low light and burned quickly.  In the Fall when the weather cooled, groups of women would gather to make tallow candles so everyone would have enough for the Winter months.

Whale oil, a byproduct of the growing whaling industry, started becoming available to Colonial people by the late eighteenth century. This whale oil created something called spermaceti wax could be created from this oil, which made harder candles.  Molds were made from wood and the spermaceti wax poured in.  Also, spermaceti wax could be added to tallow to make them harder and easier to store since they did not melt as easily.  This meant that candle making could be completed at almost any time of year, without having to worry that the weather would get too hot to store the candles.

For the wealthier Colonials, rolled beeswax candles were available.  Beeswax is clean burning and sweet smelling, but it was pricey.  Beeswax candles are still the standard today.  Bayberry wax was also discovered.  The wax was hard, didn't drip or run like tallow, and smelled good, and bayberry tapers are still used today.  Bayberries were widely available, but the process to turn them into wax was time consuming.  It took many pounds of the bayberries to make just one candle, and making bayberry candles simply was not practical.


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