Object of the Week: Highlighting the LCHA Collections

Candles and How to Make Them

Candles are a pleasant source of light. In the eighteenth century, they were preferred over “rush lights” and “fat lamps” because they smelled better and flickered less. Oil lamps were a new invention, and not yet popular in New England.

Candles can be made in three ways: dipping, molding, and ladling.

Dipped candles are made by dipping the wicks into melted wax, letting them cool, and then dipping again. Each dip builds up a layer of wax until the candles are the right size. The only equipment needed is a tall pot to hold the melted wax, and a rack to hang the candles while they cool. The depth of the pot limits the length of the candles you can make, but you can make as many as you want at one time.

Molded candles are made by stringing candlewick in the mold, plugging the holes at the bottom of the mold, and pouring in the melted wax. The wax shrinks as it cools, so the candles can be taken out of the mold. Usually the candles need to cool overnight, so you can only make as many candles at a time as you have molds.

My advice for making the most candles with the least effort, is to dip them until the wax gets too low to make full-length candles, then pour the remaining wax into molds.

Ladled candles are made by hanging the wicks on a circular rack that can be turned, and then pouring wax onto the wicks. The wax is relatively cool, so it sticks to the wick and builds up a layer. Turn the rack to the next wick and pour. Repeat this, and when you get back to the first candle, it will have cooled enough that you can pour another layer. Continue until the candles are the right size. Very long candles can be made this way. A lot of equipment is needed: the rack, a pot to melt wax, a pot to sit below the wick and catch the wax that doesn’t stick to the wick, and a ladle.

In eighteenth-century New England, housewives and shopkeepers made candles by dipping and molding, because both methods are easy to do well. Ladling candles is faster and more efficient than dipping or molding, but it takes skill and practice to ladle well-shaped candles, and it takes a lot of space and time to set up the rack and other equipment. Probably only professional candlemakers made ladled candles.

Left to right: dipped, molded, ladled

Because candles were relatively expensive, it was customary to bring a candle when going to an evening party. If the party was good, it was “worth the candle.”

Reb Manthey, 18th Century Re-enactor with Colonial Maine Living History Association (CMLHA)