Candles play a role in many holiday celebrations and traditions, especially at this time of the year when daylight hours in the Northern Hemisphere are short. According to Greek mythology, we are indebted to Prometheus for the gift of fire, which he stole from the gods. Archeology shows that ancient people may have soaked plant stalks in animal fat to form primitive candles and torches. It’s even possible that these crude, smoky illumination devices may have caused the soot on the illustrated walls of caves in southern France as Paleolithic artists painted by candlelight.
Five thousand years ago, the Egyptians formed beeswax into candles similar to the ones we use today. Beeswax candles with reed wicks have been discovered in the tombs of Egyptian rulers, placed there, perhaps, to light their journey into the realm beyond. About the same time, the ancient Romans fashioned candere, a Latin word meaning “to shine,” from olive oil, animal fat, and beeswax to which they added a flax wick that enabled the candles to burn more effectively.
Plant oils were the material of choice for many early Asian candlemakers, especially in India where Hindu laws forbade the burning of animal products in temples. The ancient Chinese pressed oils from the seeds of the tallow tree for their candles. In the Americas, native people extracted oils from nuts and various plants including bayberries, which yielded an aromatic, flammable wax, a practice the Colonial settlers adopted.
As the whaling industry developed during the early 1700s, New England candlemakers began using the oil of the sperm whale in their products. The following century, stearin was added to candles to harden the animal fat, increase the burn time, and reduce the odor. Stearin, a combination of palm oil and stearic acid, is still used in some candles today. In 1850, the discovery of paraffin revolutionized the candle industry. Distilled from petroleum by-products, paraffin produced less smoke than animal fat and emitted no unpleasant odor. Paraffin candles were also cheaper than those made from plant substances –– even today, paraffin wax is still the most widely used material in commercial candles.
In recent years, however, environmental- and health-conscious candlemakers arereturning to the age-old tradition of forming candles from beeswax and plant oils. A scientific study done by the University of Michigan in 1999 revealed the dark side of paraffin candles –– they contain nearly a dozen documented toxins, some of them carcinogenic. To make matters worse, metallic wicks often include lead, which is released into the air when the candles burn.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “burning candles with lead-containing wicks may cause lead poisoning” and the American Lung Association has issued a warning that petroleum-based candles can contaminate the air in our homes. Leaded candles have been banned in Australia, and some health advocates and environmental scientists are recommending a similar action in this country.
Candles made from pure soy, palm, cottonseed, olive oil, and other plant-based materials with all-cotton wicks produce no toxic residue. Nor do they emit the smoke associated with paraffin candles, which can leave a sooty residue on walls and furnishings. These environmentally friendly candles also take advantage of plentiful, renewable, biodegradable resources.