• Sara Thompson

Lighting our Way


Photo by David Tomaseti on Unsplash

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise


Candles come in countless varieties, colors, and uses. Candles consist of a waxy substance dried around a wick. The wick is usually a string or cord that draws the melted wax up to the flame, keeping it lit. Currently they are used for decoration and ceremonies, but candles have a long history with a number of interesting innovations.


The first wicked candles are accredited to the ancient Romans, who would dip rolled papyrus into melted waxy materials. Prior to that, most people used firepits or oil lamps to light their homes. Early wicked candles were made from tallow, which is rendered animal fat. Beeswax was also used but was too expensive for most households and was exclusively bought by the wealthy. During the Middle Ages candle crafters, called chandlers, would make candles in homes with saved tallow or sell at shops.


During the 18th century, another substance called spermaceti began to be used in candle production. It was a waxy material found in sperm whales and became one of the most used substances for candles because it burned longer and brighter than anything else. It did not give off a foul odor when burned like tallow candles. It was also much harder than both tallow and beeswax candles and could better withstand the summer heat.


In 1850, paraffin wax was first distilled from petroleum. This bluish-white wax burns clean and bright, without any odor. It was cheaper to acquire and manufacture than spermaceti and quickly became widely used. The downside to paraffin wax was that its melting point was too low. Chemists then mixed it with stearic acid to make it harder and last longer.


When the light bulb was introduced in 1879, the need for candles began to decline. We no longer needed them as sources of light, but use has continued for ceremonies and festivals. Paraffin wax and stearic acid candles would continue to be the mostly widely used candle during this time as the materials were readily available as industrial byproducts. In the 1980s, candle popularity began to rise again. Candles are now decorative objects and used for a variety of ways. They help us celebrate birthdays and holidays, they help create romantic atmospheres, and can be used to make a room seem calm and cozy.


Even with modernization, candles can still be dangerous, and are a leading source of residential fires in the US according to the National Fire Protection Association. An open flame should never be left unattended, and it is important to keep flammable objects away from a burning candle. A candle snuffer is a cup made from a fire-resistant material used to cover the candle top and cuts off oxygen to the flame. Using a candle snuffer is a safe way to extinguish a candle as blowing a candle could cause hot wax to splatter.


Modern candles continue to be updated and revolutionized. Many candles are now made from plant oils, such as palm, soy, and flaxseed. Wicks no longer contain lead or other harmful chemicals. If you burn a candle this holiday season for a celebration or to relax, please be safe.

Explorit's coming events:


• Due to COVID-19 restrictions and the health and safety of our staff and visitors, our gallery will remain closed. Staff regularly check messages and email. Watch for additional after school camps in the new year.


• Like many small businesses the closures have had a significant impact on our income and sustainability. Now is a great time to donate and help Explorit continue to educate and inspire the scientists of tomorrow: explorit.org/donate


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