Candle wicks dipped in beef or mutton tallow

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.

Snuffers, snuffs and wicks

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.

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Thank you for the interesting post.

Your quite welcome!



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Patchwork Merchant Mercenaries had its humble beginnings as an idea of a few artisans and craftsmen who enjoy performing with live steel fighting. As well as a patchwork quilt tent canvas. Most had prior military experience hence the name.


Patchwork Merchant Mercenaries.


Vendertainers that brought many things to a show and are know for helping out where ever they can.

As well as being a place where the older hand made items could be found made by them and enjoyed by all.

We expanded over the years to become well known at what we do. Now we represent over 100 artisans and craftsman that are well known in their venues and some just starting out. Some of their works have been premiered in TV, stage and movies on a regular basis.

Specializing in Medieval, Goth , Stage Film, BDFSM and Practitioner.

Patchwork Merchant Mercenaries a Dept of, Ask For IT was started by artists and former military veterans, and sword fighters, representing over 100 artisans, one who made his living traveling from fair to festival vending medieval wares. The majority of his customers are re-enactors, SCAdians and the like, looking to build their kit with period clothing, feast gear, adornments, etc.

Likewise, it is typical for these history-lovers to peruse the tent (aka mobile store front) and, upon finding something that pleases the eye, ask "Is this period?"

A deceitful query!! This is not a yes or no question. One must have a damn good understanding of European history (at least) from the fall of Rome to the mid-1600's to properly answer. Taking into account, also, the culture in which the querent is dressed is vitally important. You see, though it may be well within medieval period, it would be strange to see a Viking wearing a Caftan...or is it?

After a festival's time of answering weighty questions such as these, I'd sleep like a log! Only a mad man could possibly remember the place and time for each piece of kitchen ware, weaponry, cloth, and chain within a span of 1,000 years!! Surely there must be an easier way, a place where he could post all this knowledge...

Traveling Within The World is meant to be such a place. A place for all of these artists to keep in touch and directly interact with their fellow geeks and re-enactment hobbyists, their clientele.

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