In the Middle Ages and the Victorian Era candles were a hallmark of aristocracy because only the wealthy could afford their luxury. Today’s growing luxury candle industry reignites the same notion of exclusivity, prestige and status in a vast pool of generic productions.
Contemporary high-end candles are designed to perfection using premium quality ingredients and state-of-the-art branding. And despite their steep price-tags are worth every penny!
But when did candles get so popular? And how did luxury candles enter the market as bourgeoise household essentials after our own pining hearts?
I’ll be sharing with you the answers to both in this post by taking you on a tour of the arcane history of candles.
To start, there’s really no concrete evidence telling us where candles exactly originated first. Since antiquity, a number of thriving civilizations recreated different versions of this illumination devise using varying mediums long before there was such a thing as a lightbulb.
The Ancient Egyptians are most often accredited as inventors of candles dating back to 3000 BC. However, the Ancient Romans were also among its first users who even developed many variants.
The Romans used papyrus for wicks, dipping rolls of it in tallow or beeswax. Roman candles were used to light homes, facilitate navigation in the dark and serve as ceremonial props for religious events.
On the other hand, the Ancient Chinese combined wax from a native insect with seeds and made wicks out of rice paper. And the Japanese used tree nut extraction for wax. Whereas in India fruits from cinnamon trees were boiled to produce one of a kind candles.
From tallow to insects to tree nuts to the fruits of cinnamon trees. Yak butter, eulachons, bayberries. Spermaceti (sperm whale oil) to stearin –– candles historically came in rather innovative forms.
Despite their seemingly odd nature, candles were utilitarian across cultures in the pre-electric world for obvious reasons. It would become the ultimate man-made light source and play a pivotal role in religious ceremonies.
The first use of candles in the celebration of the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, dates back to 165 BC. Candles also get shoutouts in early Biblical texts.
In the Middle Ages, spanning 5th to 15th centuries, tallow was most commonly used to make household candles in Europe. Not long thereafter, beeswax was popularized which revolutionized candle-making by and far.
Unlike tallow, which is derived from animal fat, beeswax, a natural wax produced by honeybees, not only emitted a pleasant aroma but also didn’t give-off soot. Only caveat was that only the wealthy could afford beeswax candles.
By the turn of the 13th century, candlemaking became a guild craft in England and France. Candlemakers or chandlers went from house-to-house making candles and started opening their own shops. These were most likely the first candle brick and mortars in human history!
Candles first reached the United States during the Colonial Period when colonial women discovered a new form of clean burning wax made from berries of bayberry bushes. However, due to the complicated extraction procedure, production came to a halt eventually falling by the wayside.
In the wake of the whaling industry in the 18th century, spermaceti was introduced as a wax substitute and used widely due to their heat resistant property.
By the Victorian Era, candles would at last become a necessity. Alongside the advent of opulent votives, scones, candleholders, snuffers, and candelabras, scented candles would also rise to prominence in Victorian England.
Before then, scented candles traditionally only found use in funeral ceremonies to mask unpleasant odors.
In the 1820’s, French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul discovered stearin wax. Some fourteen years later, Joseph Morgan invented a machine that facilitated mass manufacture of candles which helped make them affordable to the masses for the first time in history. (Source)
Paraffin wax was developed by a group of chemists in 1850 which rendered manufacturing costs and prices even more economical. However, candles saw an inevitable decline after the lightbulb was invented by Thomas Edison in 1879.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that candles reemerged as a popular commodity. The growth of the U.S. oil and meatpacking industry ushered in larger productions of paraffin and stearin. Candles were used widely as decorative items, gifts and mood setters.
High demand for candles lead to the development of wax variants. Soy wax, derived from soybeans, was only introduced by agricultural chemists in the U.S. in the 1990s!
However, Diptyque, a name that’s become synonymous with luxury candles, has been around since 1961. And Cire Trudon claims they’ve been making candles since 1643 for the royal court of Louis XIV.
According to the Home Fragrances: U.S. Market Analysis and Opportunities report by global market research and management consulting firm Kline, “Candles remain the largest product category in 2017, contributing more than 41% to overall market sales. Driven by luxury candle marketers that record double the category growth, candles are also the fastest growing product form in the market.” (Source)
It’s no secret that luxury candles have been key players in the candle market boom and sales surge for the last several decades. But when did they enter our daily lexicon?
Carol Freysinger, the stateside National Candle Association’s executive director remembers: “It’s interesting because luxury candles with higher prices were usually larger in size back in the 1990s, when the price was driven more by the look than the scent. The trend then was large, textured pillar candles. But the entire industry shifted over the next two decades to a focus on fragranced container candles. Scented candles existed before then, but they were a niche product. Not so anymore.”