The most common forms of lighting in Regency England were rushlights, candles, firelight, and oil lamps. Candles have been used for illumination for over 5,000 years. They are believed to have first been created by the Ancient Egyptians, who made torches by soaking plant reeds in melted animal fat. Unlike a true candle, these rushlights contained no wick. The wicked candle is attributed to the Romans beginning about 500 BC, who dipped rolled papyrus in melted tallow or beeswax. Early civilizations used wax from plants or insects to make candles. The Early Chinese candles were molded in paper tubes, with a rolled rice paper wick. The wax for this type of candle was a mix of seeds and wax taken from an indigenous insect. The Chinese also used whale fat as early as the Qin Dynasty. Candles lit the way for travelers and allowed you to see in the dark. They are still used in ceremonies around the world.
In the Middle Ages, Candle makers (chandlers) went from house to house collecting the animal fats from kitchens to make candles to sell. In England, candles were largely made from animal fat (tallow) but beeswax was also introduced in the Middle Ages to Europe. The candlewicks were made from flax or a piece of cotton. Beeswax burned pure and clean and did not hold the acrid odor of the tallow candles. Beeswax candles held a pleasant odor and did not have a smoky flame. As you can imagine, buying candles that smelled and burned better cost far more and only the wealthy could afford burning beeswax in their homes. The churches often used beeswax. It is said that you must use three or four tallow candles to reach the brightness of one beeswax candle. Beeswax candles did not attract rodents like the tallow and they could withstand being placed next to a fire. Beeswax also didn’t drip as much down from the chandeliers onto your guests’ heads, which is always a plus. Candlelight and people filled ballrooms could become stuffy over time and ceilings were often covered in a black film from all the candle smoke. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, which I love, had to undergo the painstaking removal from centuries of black smoke covering the work of art. The colors are now far more vibrant since the removal of candle soot.
As often comes along with a growing product, in 1709 the English Parliament levied a tax on candles and banned the making of them at home, unless the maker obtained a special license. Of course the special license came with a hefty price tag and more taxes. Candles made and sold by licensed chandlers were also heavily taxed, which encouraged clandestine manufacturing. This law didn’t affect most of the city dwellers that usually purchased their candles, but it angered greatly the rural areas of the country where people had been making their own candles for centuries. Some of the rural farmers made their candles anyway as one bull could provide enough tallow for three years worth of candles. The tallow candles burned at a low temperature and produced a lot of hot fat that ran down the sides of the candle, this is called guttering. Candles in rural areas were often made from pork fat, which stunk and gave off a thick, black smoke. The middle classes often had tallow candles made from mutton, which smelled less rancid than the pork or beef ones. The more freshly made the candle, the less it would stink. But all tallow candles demanded constant attention as the wick had to be trimmed to prevent guttering. Guttering wasted the candle wax and increased smoke. These candles also needed to be snuffed. Tallow candles had to be kept in a box as their stench had a tendency to call forth rodents. The candle tax was removed in 1831.
The whaling industry flourished in the 18th century, in turn making whale oil available in large quantities. The Spermaceti wax derived from whale oil held no odor, while producing a brighter light. Spermaceti wax was harder than tallow or beeswax so it could hold its shape in the summer heat. In the 1820’s, the French Chemist, Michel Eugene Chevereul, developed stearin wax, which was harder and more durable and thus it burned longer. In the mid 19th century, candles were manufactured and became a part of an industrialized mass market. It was due to Englishman, Joseph Morgan, who in 1834 patented a machine that revolutionized candle making. His molding machine could make 1500 candles in an hour. His machine made beeswax candles affordable to all classes.
As many of us realize when our power goes out, candles are not nearly illuminating enough. It is frustrating to try to read by candlelight, but many Regency families sat in front of their fireplaces, reading, talking, and doing needlepoint while I assume, squinting to see. The people throughout history often retired early to bed after sunset and arose with the dawn to take advantage of light. The higher classes who could afford the expense of constantly burning candles could afford to stay up later and place numerous candles around them. The wealthy homes also carried more windows and mirrors to reflect this light through their homes. Of course when the wealthy were not entertaining, they used the least amount of candles possible. Candles were available in different sizes and lengths and one could gage the length of how long a ball would last by looking at the candles. Some candles had four to six hour burn times, or even longer. Candles were a symbol of your wealth so to impress your guests you would have hundreds upon hundreds lighting your home for the grand event, burning through your money with every hour of conversation that passed.
A special thank you to: http://candles.org/history/ , http://www.candlewic.com/service/about-candlewic/the-history-of-candles-and-candlemaking/page.aspx?id=2216 , https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/tag/candles-in-the-regency-era/ , and Jane Austen’s England, by Roy and Lesley Adkins