The word chandler comes from the French chandelier, which in addition to designating the candelabrum itself, used to designate a person whose trade it was to make and sell candles. Since the fabrication of candles also yields soap as a by-product, most chandlers also made and sold soap. Along with selling soaps and candles, many chandlers became sellers of general household dry goods then as global commerce expanded, chandlers in port cities also became known for supplying ships with their necessary stores.
Colonial candles would have predominantly been made from tallow. Tallow is the white waxy fat that rises and hardens above fried or roasted meats that have been allowed to cool. When an animal is slaughtered, the excess fat is collected and rendered by heating it until it melts and straining away all the meat and gristle. Journeyman chandlers often from house to house making candles and soap from left over cooking fats and potash that the household collected for candle making. Tallow candles are cheap and easy to make but are soft and burn with an offensive smell.
Honeybees were introduced to Virginia around 1616, and by the mid-1700s it was common for colonists to keep bees for the benefit of both their honey and wax. Candles made from beeswax were preferable to tallow candles, because they burned cleaner and brighter while putting off less smoke but collecting and processing enough beeswax to light your home for any significant period can be challenging. Beeswax candles were widely used for church ceremonies, but because they were expensive, few individuals other than the wealthy could afford to burn them in the home.
Boiling the grayish-green berries of bayberry bushes produces a sweet-smelling wax that burned cleanly. Bayberry wax also turns a wonderful soft green color when boiled in a copper pot (oxidation of the copper ions). Extracting the wax from the bayberries, however, is extremely tedious. It takes 10 pounds of berries to make one pound of wax, making them a time-consuming and inefficient source of wax. As a result, the popularity of bayberry candles soon diminished.
Spermaceti is a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil. Like beeswax, the spermaceti wax did not elicit a repugnant odor when burned and produced a significantly brighter light. It also was harder than either tallow or beeswax, so it wouldn’t soften or bend in the summer heat.
Paraffin wax was introduced in the 1850s, the naturally-occurring waxy biproduct of petroleum is easily refined and produces an odorless and bluish-white wax. Paraffin burns cleanly, consistently and is relatively cheap making it the ideal candle fuel. Its only disadvantage is that it has a low melting point, but this is easily overcome by adding stearic acid. Even though its an anachronism, I use a blend of steric acid, paraffin, and beeswax in my presentations.
As for the candlewick, these would have been created by spinning together flax and linen on a wheel. Unfortunately, flax candlewicks do not burn away as the flame moves down the candle, so again, I have an anachronism. I make my candlewicks by soaking cotton braid in paraffin. It looks and acts like a colonial era wick but is easier to make and safer to burn.
There are three basic strategies for creating tapered candles:
- Dipping: A large pot of wax (or tallow) is heated to just above the melting point — if the wax is too hot, the candles will just remelt when dipped – then a wick of cotton or hemp wick (often prewetted with wax) is dipped in the hot wax, withdrawn and allowed to harden, then dipped again. We repeat this process until a nice fat taper is formed.
- Pouring: Like dipping, wax is heated in a pot only instead of dipping the wick in the wax, hot wax is poured down the length of the wick. Using this technique, it is possible to make very long thin candles but it is difficult to make these candles as uniform and symmetrical as the dipped candles.
- Votive: This is a popular format for modern candle hobbyist. A wick is secured vertically in a heat resistant vessel like a glass or small pot. Wax is poured around the wick and the entire assembly is used as a candle. Votive candles are particularly useful in lanterns as they last a very long time. Tallow votives also do not drip because they are contained so if your tallow is of low quality, creating votives is a great option. Finally, there is
- Molding: Commercial chandlers or very wealthy households often had purpose-built candle molds. These create uniform pillars in a form very similar to modern candles. The only drawback to candle molds is the expense of the molds. Since these must fully cool before the candles can be extracted, a chandler would need quite a few of these tin molds and that can represent a significant investment.