Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Candles: The Light at its Brightest

"If the only light and heat comes from candles and fireplaces because of a power outage at your house, it is frustrating and annoying - but when it comes in the form of intimate tours of a (historical) village, it is charming and peaceful."
~A quote from Old Sturbridge Village~

Crocheting by candlelight at the 1760 Daggett Home in historic Greenfield Village.
Autumn is upon us, and the days are beginning to grow darker earlier and earlier. The sun tends to hide behind clouds more often than in the summer months.
As this season of falling leaves and cooler temps gets underway, we in my family frequently light candles and oil lamps at dinner time...for no special reason other than we like the atmosphere it gives, for, like the quote above, it really does allow for a "charming and peaceful" ambience.
Every-so-often, during storms (lightning, snow, or wind), we will lose power at our home. If it happens during daytime hours it's not usually too bad when there is plenty of daylight left, and will not generally really affect our day-to-day activities too much.
~Games and reading material by candlelight~
(my own little night time colonial scenario in my house)
That is, until sunset and twilight time rolls around.
Then, once again, as the quote states above, it can become "frustrating and annoying." Yes, even to this living historian who spends his weekends in the distant past, losing electricity can become a pain in the butt. Let me be honest here, I am set up for modern life more than the old ways: my house is run on electricity, therefore during a power outage, I have no heat (there is no real fireplace in my home, though I do have a fake electric one), no way to cook our food (I suppose I could build a fire outside in our yard), and no cellar (yes - gasp! - I keep my food cold by means of a refrigerator and freezer). Entertaining ourselves isn't such a big deal. We'll play board games, cards, and even pull out the guitars to play some music. And, since each of us has a large actual book collection, we can amuse ourselves without much difficulty by reading.
Have candle, will travel...
Looking to find the flashlight for a brighter light than a flame? Yep - - ha! the candle or oil lamp is needed to help you find it, for as reenactors, our candles and oil lamps are generally more easily accessible than flashlights. 
Going to the bathroom becomes infinitely more interesting, and can be a chore; unless you have plenty of flashlight batteries on hand, you'll find an oil lamp or candle light is needed. To head to the basement to get more paper towel? Bring a candle with you. Want to change into your night clothes? Have that oil lamp setting near your dresser. Need to get a drink of water from the kitchen? Make sure to bring your light.
The funny thing is, during these blackouts I still habitually reach for the light switch whenever I enter a darkened room.

It's amazing how many candles one can go through during an outage. We do try to conserve, as did the folks in days of old, by only using one or two means of light in whatever room we are in; the second light is mainly for "traveling" around the house.
Reading and writing...
One definite lesson I learned about candle comparisons: the 12" long tapered candles I sometimes buy at the store burn nearly three times as fast as the 6" to 7" beeswax candles I dip myself. One beeswax candle almost half that size can burn for five hours or more, while the longer modern store-bought one lasts maybe two or three hours at most.
This was confirmed by Tom Redd, a Materials Analyst for the Foundation in Colonial Williamsburg: “Let us imagine we have four candles, and each one is about three-quarters of an inch in diameter and they are all about 10 inches long. They are in a room where the air is still. A candle well-made of the best tallow might burn two hours. A bayberry candle might last eight, while a beeswax candle may burn for 10 hours. The finest candle, imported from New England, would have been made of spermaceti wax. Spermaceti is taken from the head of the sperm whale. The spermaceti candle might last 12 hours or more, and burn with a brighter light.”
Our ancestors did live in darker times, as we in the modern day find out when a power outage strikes; we are so used to having bright electric lights, day or night, that sometimes even sunlight coming through a window isn't bright enough for some - they'll still turn on their electric light. But there are those who feel that our ancestors had keener eyesight than the average person of today, possibly as a result of our dependency on the electric light. Farmers especially used to work in what we call darkness, frequently doing their haying and other chores by the light of the moon and stars.
There are also those who feel - have proven, to some extent - that the harshness of the modern electric light plays greatly upon our moods and emotions:
~excessive artificial lighting can cause us to feel nervous and on edge 
~uncovered globes and lamps without shades can cause us to feel irritated
We must be rich! Look at all the candles and oil lamps we have lit in only one room!
This is how our back "gathering room" looks shortly before we clutter it up with Thanksgiving dinner and family members. 
Looks nice and calming, doesn't it?
Yep - this is the atmosphere during dinner as well.
And common sense can tell us of the relaxation received upon entering a candle lit room. When friends visit our home on a fall or winter evening, the candle/oil lamp light we use brings a smile to their faces...every time.  
Even the kids.

Natural lighting through windows has calming effects on our emotions as well.
A candle burning near a window during daylight hours?
I think not.
But I am inside the historic Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village where ambience, like the food served, means everything.

Artificial light in the 18th century was truly a luxury. People were used to working by daylight while indoors, so lighting a candle when the sun was up was rare. It was customary for folks to move from room to room to get the most out of the day's light. Generally, candles were lit only during the nighttime hours, and sparingly so, due to the lengthy candle-making process. According to one source, a typical middle class home in the 1750's would go through nearly 500 to 700 candles a year. And that may even be a conservative amount for some.
I would say these folks are well on their way in making their 500+ quota.
Of course, upper classes would go through plenty more. 

18th century homes were as self-sufficient as they could be and those who lived in them did their best to produce as many things needful to life as they could, and this did include candles. As part of their domestic work, colonial women usually were the ones who carried the entire candlemaking process from start to finish, though many times the children, and even the men at times, would help out as well.
Only the light of a single candle...
(taken inside the McGuffey Cabin in Greenfield Village)
The season for making candles was usually in early-to-mid November. It had to be just cold enough for quick hardening, and followed shortly after fall hunting, where the collected waist fat from the butchered animals was used to make tallow for dipping. These precious fats were hoarded carefully, protected in covered crocks. The animal fat was cut into pieces and rendered (melted). The fat was boiled, caked, pressed, sieved, and purified several times. It must be remembered that candlemaking was not the fun hobby then as it is in our modern times; it was a backbreaking, smelly, greasy task.  
Wicks were made from cotton, hemp, or, less often, from milkweed. If they lived near a general store, or maybe if a peddler happened by, thick string could be bought to use as wicks.  
Once the fat was melted down and the wicks were tied to the sticks, the wicks would then be dipped repeatedly into a tub of tallow, and with each dip the candles became larger and larger until the desired length and width was had.
It's here that we can quote Susan Blunt, a woman from the early 19th century, who remembered her 18th century mother candle dipping:
"Mother used to dip candles in the fall, enough to last all winter. When a beef was killed in the fall, she would use all the tallow for candles. On the evening before, we would help her prepare the wicks. The boys would cut a lot of rods and she would cut the wicks the length of a candle and then string them on the rods.
"In the morning she would commence her day's work... 
"...She would dip each one in the hot tallow and straighten out the wicks so the candles would be straight when they were finished.
By raising the candles (out of the kettle) at just the right speed and working on a day with a moderate temperature, the fine quality of the candles would be assured. The candles would be cooled overnight and the bottom ends cut off neatly. The finished candles were packed away in a mouse-proof container for safe storage."
Thirty to fifty dippings later, the wicks were taken off the sticks and another set was tied on.

Now, making candles only during the months of fall wasn't a hard and fast rule, as notations in the diary of Martha Ballard shows us:
Could this be Martha's quill and diary paper?
(taken inside the historic 1760 Daggett Farm House in Greenfield Village)
March 16, 1787
Clear. mr Jonston & wife & Son Left here for home. mr Ballard gone to Capt Sualls. Jon gone to Joseph Fairbankss for hay. Sally Peirce here, mrss Chamln, Savage, Bolton, [Vinc] Savage & Sally Webb also. I made 6 Dos Candles. have been at home. 
November 5, 1787
Clear & pleast. I Came from mr Fosters. we made 25 Dozn of Candles. mrs Voce here. Hannah is not So well as usual, I was Calld about mid night to go See Wilm Whites wife. I was very unwell. Seth Williams after me to See his wife also in travil. mrs White Safe Delivrd of a Son by ye asistance of Moses Whites wife before I arivd. I was Exceeding Sick while gone. 
April 10, 1788
Clear. I have been at home; made 20 dz of Candles. Hannah washt. mr Ballard been at mr Pollards on Business. 
April 12, 1788
Clear. Hannah is much Better. Betsy Chever here. I have made 28 doz of Candles; 6-1/2 lb of the tallow, Cyruss. mr Gillbreath Came here; is unwell. Theophelus & James Burton here also. 

Have you kept track of how many candles Mrs. Ballard made in this thirteen month period? 79 dozen! The total number of individual candles during this time was 948!
Methinks that 500 to 700 candles mentioned earlier was a mite conservative at that (though it did say those numbers were the "average").

Pulling new candles from the mold.
Fortunately for early Americans with the want to get them, there were candle making materials available, including metal molds, where the wax could be poured in, set to harden, then removed.
"And just how did they remove those candles from the molds without the Teflon spray we have nowadays?" you ask. 
By putting the mold into boiling water - only for a few seconds. The hardened newly formed candles will slide out as easy as melted butter.
I know this to be true, because I do my candles in this manner.
Besides the animal fat we spoke of earlier, another source of candle wax was beeswax, and many farm families raised bees, not only for their honey and their pollination work, but also to get the sweet-smelling beeswax. Lucky was the colonial farmer with a large hive or two of bees, for, unfortunately, beeswax was not always available in good quantities in many places. It was expensive, and, unless you did have large hives, it was usually only the very rich who could afford to use candles made from it as a daily way of lighting their homes.
Enjoying an evening in the well-to-do home
of Mr. Giddings
You see, unlike the animal-based tallow, beeswax burned pure and cleanly, without producing a smoky flame. It also emitted a pleasant sweet smell rather than the foul, acrid odor of tallow. In colonial America the early settlers found out through their Indian neighbors that they were able to obtain a very appeasing wax by boiling the berries from the bayberry shrub during the late autumn when the berries were ripest. This wax created a very sweet smelling and good burning candle; however the process of making the bayberry wax was very tedious and tiresome.
Some of those scented candles burned slowly and gave off a fine incense, particularly when the candle was snuffed out. Each morning it was the hired girl or one of the children's jobs to clean and fit the candlesticks with new candles long enough to last an evening and then stored in the kitchen, where they would be easy to find when darkness fell. 
If there was a fire in the hearth that had been for cooking or for warmth, candles might not even be used; as long as one could see well enough to eat, spin, knit, whittle, read the bible or do any number of other duties by the light from the fireplace, a candle would be considered wasteful. I've also read that on a bright moonlit night, especially when there was snow covering the ground, the reflection of light from outside could be bright enough for one to read while indoors!

 The chandlers of Colonial Williamsburg:
(Photograph courtesy of Rachel West and THIS blog)
One of the more interesting things I learned while speaking with the candle makers at Colonial Williamsburg was that many of the citizens of that city did not make their own candles - at least not through the Revolutionary War period. They left that up to the local chandler (candle maker), as recently found evidence of a "manufacturer of soap and candles" setting up shop there from the 1770s through the 1780s attests. 
Plenty of wood was needed to keep the fires going the day long to keep the wax melted, and tin molds allowed the chandlers to make candles in far greater quantities than dipping. Of course, that also depended on how many molds a chandler had. For such a place as Williamsburg, I would imagine there were plenty of these molds about, filled continuously for the working people of the city.
(Photograph courtesy of Rachel West and THIS blog)

The light at its brightest...
(taken inside my own home - another little night time colonial scenario)
By the mid-19th century, the much brighter oil lamps had a strong foothold in American society and candles began their fade as a necessity, although they were still in great use, especially on the more rural area farms. I have read in numerous books citing diaries of many folks still making their own candles well into the early part of the 20th century. In fact, in Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells the tale of young Almanzo helping his mother make candles with a mold, and this was in the 1860s.
I am happy to say that I also dip our own candles that we burn during the months of autumn. While putting on our fall harvest presentation at one of our reenactments, I have made a presentation out of it.

I have very fond memories of my own mother lighting candles just after Labor Day. As soon as the air began to turn crisp and the shadows of the sun grew longer while the days grew shorter, she would begin her annual fall ritual (as would my father by lighting fires in our fireplace). These are some of my favorite reminisces that I share with my own children as we sit around our dinner table, a lit candle in the center, shortly after Labor Day, with a crispness in the air...

  The above candle information came from a variety of sources, including: 
~an on line source by

To read a little about my historic lighting collection, click HERE
To read about celebrating autumn past, click HERE
Celebrating a colonial Christmas - click HERE
An overview of the colonial times, click HERE


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