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Tallow candles don't sound good to us - a sooty wick burning in animal fat - but for centuries they were a reliable way of having some light after dark. In a small home the fire in the hearth was often a major source of light, but you could brighten up different areas, and even have a light you could carry from place to place if you had a candle in a portable holder.
If you were making the candles yourself, you needed a pan of hot tallow. This is the hard pale fat from cows or sheep, and it was available in different qualities according to how much it had been processed by the tallow boiler. It could be pale creamy fat, not too smelly when the candle was alight, or full of impurities. Occasionally people made use of the worst fat of all - lard, or pig's fat - said to stink when burning.
Next you measured out thread for the candle wicks. By dipping the wick repeatedly into the melted tallow you can build up a candle. Each time you dip, the candle gets a new layer of fat. Pull it out into the cool air to harden, then dip again until the candle seems the right thickness. Hanging a group of threads over a rod means you can dip plenty in one go and make several pairs of candles at once. The rod was called a broach when used by a professional tallow chandler or candle-maker. In the reconstructed 19th century candle-making workshop (photo top right) you can see a well-organised operation with a tallow trough, and a dipping frame for lowering and raising a batch of candles.
At home you might just dip a few threads strung over a stick but the basic idea was the same. Or you could buy ready-made candles. The picture to the left shows a candle seller and customers at a stall in 14th century Italy.
The wicks were made from twisted threads of flax, cotton, or hemp, and didn't burn nearly as well as our modern wicks. Trimming the wick to get rid of "candle snuffs" was an important part of keeping your candle burning well. If you didn't attend to it, the candle could get too hot, melt too much fat and send it streaming wastefully and messily down the sides - known as guttering. Smoking and excessive smell could also be improved by careful trimming.
Candle snuffers were not primarily for extinguishing the candle. Snuffers were like scissors (or nippers) for cutting off excess sooty thread. A sharp point was useful for spearing any scraps of burnt wick that fell into the hot tallow. The snuffers often had a box to catch those clipped threads - the "snuffs". I guess you had to be experienced to make the trimmings fall neatly into the box! Snuffers were sometimes called snuffer boxes or box snuffers.
A snuff-pan, dish or tray to lay greasy snuffers on was useful too. Sometimes the snuffers were kept upright in a snuff-stand. Conical extinguishers to put the flame out are still used today. The cap fits over the top of the candle and stops air from keeping the flame burning. They can be on any length of handle and are useful for putting out hard-to-reach candles. We often call them snuffers nowadays.
Rushlights made from rushes dipped in grease were like the simpler kind of tallow dip, but even cheaper since there was no need to spin or buy thread for the wick. Other early lighting included torches of flaming oily wood, lamps containing animal fat or oil, or scarce and very expensive beeswax candles. Tallow candles could also be made in moulds to get a regular size and shape for those who could afford an upmarket candle made of the most refined tallow. The moulds were pewter or tin-lined iron.
Braiding thread for wicks was one of the great discoveries of the 19th century. The braiding encourages the wick to curl back into the flame as the surrounding tallow burns down. This means more wick is burnt, and less charred, sooty "snuff" needs tidying up. The 1800s also saw great steps forward with tallow. Stearin could be extracted from it for better quality candles, or tallow could be mixed with other oils.
Thank you for the interesting post.
Your quite welcome!