What is it about winter nights and candles? I’ve been having candlelit baths (known as spooky baths in the Dagg household) for about a month now. They’re wonderful! Candles feel cosy and relaxing but I’d never think of lighting one in summer, even late when it is dark.

Candles have been around in various forms since the Chinese Qin Dynasty in 300 BC. Yup, the Chinese got there first as usual and used whale fat. Beeswax came in about rather later.

European and other countries seem to have come up with the idea of candles independently at roughly the same time. They were used for light and also for measuring the passage of time. King Alfred is famous for his candle clocks, as well as for burning cakes.

But this is a France-based blog so we need to give my look at the history of candles a French spin. At school you’re taught that chandelle and bougies are both names for candles. Well, it turns out they’re not. They’re very different kettles of fish. And let’s throw in cierges too, which are big church candles.

Chandelles came first with bougies appearing in the middle of the 19th century. One principal difference is the wick. In chandelles this was a split reed which burnt fairly first. Bougies have the wick we know today, a cotton-based one. The other main distinction is that chandelles were made from tallow and bougies from wax. The word bougie derives from Bugaya, an Algerian town that exported a lot of wax. And this being France where one word can have many meanings, bougie is also the word for a spark plug!

Over the centuries different things have been used to make the body of candle, from suif (tallow) to beeswax (cire d’abeille) to paraffin wax. The early tallow candles were made from beef or mutton suet and burnt quickly and quite vigorously which is why they often needed snuffing (moucher = to snuff out).

Old candle making machines

The Parisian candlemaking guild in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was very important, rivalling only the one in London. The first official candlemaking statutes were registered in 1392, with wax candlemakers adding separate ones in 1428 and going their own way. French chandeliers all reunited again in the 17th century, together with the huiliers-moutardiers (oil and mustard merchants). It took six years of apprenticeship to become a candlemaker and then you could sell candles from your shop or go around to houses and make candles for people using the fats they’d been collecting.

There was skulduggery going on in the candle industry. Beef tallow could be adulterated with other fats from other animals that weren’t of the same quality at all. Candlemakers could be inspected from time to time to make sure they weren’t cheating their customers. And that wasn’t the only ways candles had to be accounted for. The famous Mémoires de Pierre Miraulmont mention how the French chancellor had to justify his expenditure on candles to the royal treasury by providing their stumps!

Candlemaking is a very popular hobby. Over the years I’ve made quite a lot. My first experience was back in 1973 when the miners were on strike and there were regular 3 hour power cuts to save coal. I helped Dad make a batch of candles in readiness for whenever  Ipswich got one of the evening or early morning blackouts. I spent ages dipping a wick into a big pan of well, I’m not sure what Dad had put into it, and building up a candle layer by layer. The candles were brilliant. More recently with the kids I’ve made scented ones and beeswax ones from various kits. I’m very partial to a scented candle.

So, next time you have a candlelit romantic/spooky bath, spare a thought for the history of this little item that has played such an important role in the past before being cast into the shadow by electricity.