How Were Candles Made in Colonial Times?

Hand-dipped candles drying on a rack.
... Brian McEntire/iStock/Getty Images

The light shining in the darkness of New World nights was smoky, stinking, handmade and expensive. Raw materials for do-it-yourself colonial chandlers ranged from indigenous plants to pig and cow fat to beehives to whale brains. Making candles was a lot of work; so was trimming them so they burned slower. Reliable light for reading scriptures, sewing and working before bed was a hard-won extravagance.

1 Tallow Foul and Fair

Tallow was the cheapest, readily available candle ingredient for most colonists. It smelled awful and smoked like damp socks because tallow is the rendered fat from sheep, pigs and cattle. A simple method for making candles from tallow was to dip the peeled center of rushes in the liquid fat and let it harden. The waxy rushes could then be burned like candles. Dipping braided or twisted lengths of flax or cotton into a kettle of melted tallow made a proper candle, if a soft and short-lived one. The wicks were tied to a candle rod and dipped over and over, allowing each coating to cool, until a taper formed. Wicks might first be soaked in a saltpeter solution to prevent them from bending over as they burned and melting all the candle wax too quickly.

2 The Beneficence of Bees

A beehive was a treasure beyond price for its yield of rich honey and its waxy honeycomb. Beeswax was dipped just like tallow but it made a far superior candle. The light-colored wax solidified to a hard candle with no scent. Wicks didn't melt the wax as quickly as they dissolved the softer tallow. A beeswax candle would burn without the endless tending required by tallow, much brighter and far longer. The process of trimming the wick so it couldn't bow and touch the side of the candle was less frequent but still necessary. Natural plant oils could be added to beeswax to give it a pleasant fragrance and the candles were comparatively expensive compared with tallow. Beeswax candles were generally stockpiled in the cupboards of the wealthiest colonists.

3 Whale Wax

Every bit of a sperm whale was used by the New England whaling industry, including all the matter from the inside of the head, which was painstakingly processed into superior candles. Spermaceti candles were factory-made over a period of many months from fall to late spring or summer. The process involved pressing the oil from the material after it was heated -- a chandler's factory worked with 600 or more barrels of waxy spermaceti at a time. The headmatter was heated to remove impurities, stored for months in an unheated shed, pressed several times to remove oil, formed into waxy cakes and shaved. The shavings were melted, treated to lighten them from brown to white and poured into candle molds. Spermaceti candles were expensive but burned cleanly and three times as brightly as tallow, and the whaling industry kept colonists who could afford them well-supplied.

4 Yankee Ingenuity

Colonial homemakers were inventive polymaths. They not only mastered the tasks of building, provisioning and running a home, they experimented with the unfamiliar materials of their new country. Wild bayberry bushes grew everywhere along the Atlantic coast and women soon discovered that the waxy green berries could be boiled into a clear greenish tallow. Bayberry wax was very hard and smelled divine, a big improvement over tallow. The wax didn't melt in hot summer temperatures and it burned slowly and evenly. So colonial women sent the kids out to pick berries, invented metal molds that saved time-consuming dipping and developed a cottage industry, exporting fragrant bayberry candles back to merry old England for a tidy profit.

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .