Opinion: Burning question about candles

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Commentary by Ward Degler

Has anyone ever written a book about candle making? I wondered about this when I was cleaning out a couple of neglected shelves in my studio and came across several mostly used-up candles.

The discovery made me realize there’s a cabinet in the living room that has a drawer filled with candles. And another one in the guest bedroom. I think there also might be some candles in the kitchen in what we jokingly call the utility drawer. Actually, it’s the place we dump anything that won’t fit anywhere else.

Who came up with the idea of putting a string in a glob of wax and lighting it in the first place? Maybe it was an accident, like when lightning struck a dinosaur and set the woods on fire, creating the first candlelight dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Caveman.

Earliest records have the ancient Romans making crude candles from papyrus wicks and tallow. It wasn’t the best light and the tallow smoked and stunk clear down to the Forum. Caesar and the high-rent crew burned candles made of beeswax, which was much brighter and cleaner. Of course, beekeeping wasn’t a thing back then, so beeswax candles were expensive and in short supply.

For the next several centuries, candle making droned on without much progress. But things changed dramatically in the 1700s, when the whaling industry was in full flower. It seems Moby Dick was rich in oil that could be boiled down to a clear wax that was ideal for making candles.

But just when things were looking good for candle makers, the whales got fished out and sperm whale oil was suddenly hard to come by. Fortunately, about that time, a French chemist whose name has been forgotten discovered how to make candle wax by extracting stearic acid from animal fat. This wax was malleable enough for someone to invent the first machine to mass produce candles.

But, wouldn’t you know it, just when folks were getting comfortable with this development, someone else discovered paraffin, a wax byproduct of the emerging petroleum industry. It was ideal for making candles.

Ever since, candle makers have been pouring wax by the gallon and making candles of every size, shape and fragrance. You can’t walk through a shopping mall, gift shop or gas station without coming face to face with a display of candles.

That said, out in the mission district of San Diego, there is a quiet little shop that in direct defiance of centuries of progress does nothing but make candles by laboriously dipping strings repeatedly into pots of melted beeswax.

If anybody ever does write a book about candle making, they probably should talk to these folks.

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