How Did Colonial People Make Candles?

Early colonial candles were dipped tapers.

Have you ever wondered, how did colonial people make candles? While their methods of candle making were far different from current procedures, colonial people were responsible for several advancements in candle making techniques. They were resourceful and frugal, and their dependence on candles resulted in methods of candle making that are still used today.

Colonial Candles

For most people today, candles are enjoyable. They help to create a romantic or soothing atmosphere, add color and warmth to a room, and fill the air with lovely scents. While many people love candles, they are not a necessity and could easily be replaced by lamps or other light sources.

During colonial times, candles were the main source of light during the long, dark, nighttime hours. With so much work to do just to keep a household running, women had to work into the night hours on things like making or mending clothing and linens, preparing and storing food, and other tasks that we now take for granted. With hours of work to complete each and every day, evening hours became precious commodities. Since no chores could be completed in the dark, colonial women relied on candles to light their homes.

Colonial Candle Making Evolution


Colonial people, like the generations before them, made candles by first rendering animal fats into a substance called tallow. Tallow can be melted and dipped to make fat taper candles, but the resulting tapers are much softer than the wax candles found today. They also tended to smell bad, and drip excessively. Because of the softness, tallow candles tended to burn with a low light, and they didn't last very long.

Still, tallow was readily available and the candles could be made in large batches at home. During the fall, when the weather was cool enough to store these soft candles, women gathered to make enough tallow candles to last their households through the long winter months.


For those with some extra money to spend on candles, rolled beeswax candles were available. Beeswax smells great and lasts a lot longer than tallow, but it was expensive.

Bayberry Wax

There was also a new kind of wax made from bayberries. Bayberry wax was hard, didn't drip or run like tallow, and smelled good. Since bayberries were widely available, this would seem to be a handy alternative. The problem was that the process was time consuming, and it took many pounds of berries to make just one candle. With time at a premium, bayberry candles simply weren't practical.

Whale Oil/Spermaceti Wax

Whale oil, which was a byproduct of the growing whaling industry, became available to the colonial people by the late eighteenth century. This whale oil created something called spermaceti wax, which made harder candles.

To make candles from spermaceti wax, colonial people created candle molds out of wood, and proceeded to make the very first standard candles. With tallow, the candles were dipped, and therefore each one was slightly different. With the invention of candle molds and the use of a harder wax, the resulting candles became uniform.

Even for families who couldn't afford to purchase large quantities of spermaceti wax, smaller amounts could be bought and added to the tallow to make harder candles that could be stored much more easily.

For those with immediate access to the wax, such as those families working in the whaling industry, candle making became a task that could be completed almost any time of year, without having to worry that the weather would get too hot for safe candle storage.

Colonial Innovations Impact Today's Candles

Today, you can purchase bayberry candles and see for yourself how cleanly they burn. The most important colonial innovation, however, is the standard candle made from a candle mold. It's very common these days to see candles of uniform size and shape, and that's because candle molds are so popular with today's candle makers.

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How Did Colonial People Make Candles?