Candles were probably the most common source of light used in the 18th-century. Three basic types of candles were employed by our forefathers and mothers tallow, wax, and spermacetti. Each had its own unique qualities and the finer varieties were highly prized as a status symbol.1
The tallow candle was made from animal fat, especially that of beef cattle. They tended to sputter and spit, and offered a generally poor quality of light. They were also very susceptible to heat, and would sometimes melt into a glob of liquid fat on warm days. Tallow candles and grease lamps were considered a sign of destitution at least by the upper classes as James Boswell notes: "One sad circumstance in the Stube, or common room of a German inn, is being obliged to sleep with a tallow candle or a coarse lamp a-burning."2 "I was shown into a dining room, decent enough, but how poor in comparison to her former magnificence. A couple of tallow candles gave me light."3
Wax candles were of better quality than tallow candles and were therefore considered more valuable. While in London, Boswell says of wax candles:" They have a finer light, and I can lock them up without offence..." He goes on to list his annual expense for candles at £6 a tidy sum in those days, as Boswell's total annual income at the time was only £164 4. Wax candles were enough of a status symbol to Boswell that they received special mention in his Journal: " A good, decent, trusty servant had a fire and wax candles and all in good order for me." 5
In the 18th century, wax candles were made from either beeswax or by boiling the fruits of the bayberry the latter offering the added luxury of giving off a pleasant odor when burned6. Of bayberry candles one British officer noted:" ... I was much surprise... to see the landlady bring in a couple of green wax-candles, which at first we really took them to be; but lo! They were made from the berries of a tree, which is called the tallow shrub, as they produce a kind of wax or tallow; this plant grows in England, and known by the name of the candleberry tree. The method of making the fat from these berries, is by gathering them late in the Autumn, then they are put into a pot of boiling water; of course the fat melts out, and floats to the surface, which is skinned off, and this process is continued 'till there is no fat left, when congealed, it has a green dirty color, but after refined, becomes perfectly transparent; with this they manufacture their candles; they were formerly much used, but before the war, they could procure tallow in great abundance, and therefore used it in preference, as the time for gathering the berries and preparing them scarcely repays the trouble. É There are many qualities appertaining to the candles made from their berries; they do not easily bend or melt in the Summer, as common candles, they burn better and slower, and when extinguished, do not smoak, but rather evaporate with an agreeable odour. " 7
Beeswax and/or bayberry was also often mixed with tallow for better economy and to improve the quality of the tallow. Boswell hints at this practice through one of his more profound statements: "I observed that there were few people with mixed characters, like a candle: half wax, half tallow".8
Spermacetti candles, made from a fatty gland in the head of the sperm whale, were the ultimate candle. Spermacetti candles reportedly gave off three times the light of tallow, and were worth twice as much, as Howe's orderly book attests: " The Troops may Receive Spermaceti Candles from the Barrack Master at the rate of one pound of Spermacetti for two of Tallow." 9
With candles being such an important source of light, candle holders and lanterns were a common and essential household item. The frugal lower and middle classes would often use inexpensive " savealls"" to hold their candles. The saveall was a flat piece of metal with a small spike in the middle mounted on a tin or wooden base. As the name suggests, it allowed the valuable candles to be burned all the way down to the base.10
Modern candles are self-snuffing (one thread of the wick being woven tighter than the others, so as the candle burns, the wick curls over and is incinerated in the hottest part of the flame), so to really get the effect of 18th-century lighting, try making your own candles using a piece of heavy string or braided cord for your wick. Candles are fun and easy to make molding them is quicker, but not as much fun as hand-dipping them. For details on how to make candles, see the craft section of your local library, or see these excellent works on the subject by two of the NWTA's own: George Glenn, " Lighting the Primitive Camp" , The Book of Buckskinning IV; and Theta Mort, Makin' Candles.
1) Tallow candles were issued to the British troops twelve private soldiers and their corresponding non-commissioned officers were issued ten candles per week and the general officers received from 6 to 16 candles per week depending on rank. High-ranking field officers were issued as many as twenty-one candles per week. SOURCE: The Diary of Frederick MacKenzie, 1775-1781, Harvard University Press, 1930, Vol. 1, p 131, [26th December, 1776].
2) The Heart of Boswell, edited by Mark Harris, McGraw-Hill, 1981, page 138 [27 October, 1764].
3) Boswell, the Ominous Years, 1774-1776, edited by Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1963, page 356, [London, 22 April, 1776].
4) Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick AS. Pottle, McGraw-Hill, 1950, page 336.
5) Ibid. Heart, page 169 [24 December, 1766].
6) Alice Morse Earle, Home Life in Colonial Days, Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., New York, 1975, pages 39-40 [quoting Kalm, 1748].
7) Anburey, Thomas, Travels Through the Interior Parts of America in a Series of Letters by an Officer, New York Times and Arno Press, 1969, Vol. II p 300 -301 [17 Dec, 1778, Lancaster, PA]. Bayberry is a hardy, semi-evergreen shrub that grows to about 8 feet in height. It was very common in the tidewater areas during the revolution and also grows well in the harsh midwestern climate. If you're interested in "growing your own" candles, Bayberry is available at finer greenhouses.
8) Ibid. Heart, page 259, [28 April, 1769].
9) General Sir William Howe's Orderly Book, 1775-1776, compiled and edited by Benjamin Franklin Stevens, London, 1890, page 207-208 [2 Feb, 1776]. Ibid. Earle p. 42. According to my postage scale, a 6" beeswax candle weighs 1.5 ounces. I don't know if tallow candles weigh more or less.
10) See candle sticks and "lanthorns" in Collector's Illustrated. Savealls shown in "The Match Girl", from The Criers and Hawkers of London Engravings and Drawings by Marcellus Laroon [ca. 1687] Edited, with an Introduction and Commentary, by Sean Shesgreen, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1990 [Kohler Art Library, Elvejum Museum, Madison Wisconsin].