Harold Gill and Lou Powers

April 1981

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series - 33
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Williamsburg, Virginia



by Harold Gill and Lou Powers


Research Department
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

April 1981


by Harold Gill and Lou Powers

To the modern American who lives his nights in well lit places, the nights of colonial Virginia would seem dim. A room lit with seven candles appeared "luminous and splendid" to an eighteenth-century observer.1 Most colonial homes included only two candlesticks; the average number mentioned in the ninety-five Virginia inventories examined for this report was slightly less than five per household. Nightfall must have forced the colonial person into a range of activities far different from what the twentieth-century person experiences. For instance, most work stopped with the failure of natural light. Reading was difficult by candlelight, so the colonial American could only sit in the dimness to engage in conversation or else retire. It was not that candles were too expensive for most people but that they simply did not provide enough light for close work like sewing. If we can judge by existing colonial houses, the interiors were dim even in the daytime. Furniture was probably arranged to take best advantage of available light.

Candles were the common method of interior lighting in colonial Virginia. In the late eighteenth century oil lamps of one kind of another became more popular and began to appear in more and more houses, but rush lights and other such lighting devices were nearly nonexistent before the Revolution. It may be because of fashion as much as anything that candles were the usual source of artificial light in Virginia. One writer observed in 1749 2. "candle light is more fashionable in England, and in all places of polite entertainment" than lamps of any kind.2

During the eighteenth century candles were made of primarily four substances, all of which (except spermaceti) were produced in Virginia. Spermaceti seem to have been the most expensive and appear in the inventories of only the wealthiest estates. The three other kinds of raw materials from which candles were made were tallow, beeswax, and myrtle or bayberry wax. (Occasionally there is mention of candles made of other substances such as pimento.)3 Tallow was by far the most commonly used material for candles. During 1769 nearly 10,500 pounds of tallow candles were imported into Virginia along with over 6,000 pounds of spermaceti candles. No beeswax or myrtle wax candles were imported during that year.4 After tallow, bayberry or myrtle wax seem to have been the most popular because of their better light and pleasant odor.

Tallow candles usually cost about two pence less per pound than bayberry candles and about four pence per pound less than spermaceti. The price of molded tallow candles ranged from 10-½ to 11 pence per pound, and dipped tallow candles cost about a penny a pound less.

Some chandlers evidently produced only tallow candles. Roger Pearse of Norfolk, for instance, referred to himself as a tallow chandler. His ad in the Virginia Gazette mentions both dipped and molded candles:

Roger Pearse, Tallow-Chandler Near the Church, Norfolk, Makes and Sells the best mould Candles, at ten pence half-penny per pound, and dipt ditto, at nine pence half penny: Where all masters of vessels may be supplied with the best candles on the shortest notice.5
A Williamsburg candlemaker, Morto Brien, produced both tallow and myrtle wax candles: 3.
The Subscriber (lately from Norfolk) begs leave to inform the Public that he has erected a Manufactury of Soap and Candles in this City, and intends carrying on the Business in the best Manner, opposite Mr. Maupin's Tavern. He will give 7-½ d per lb. for Tallow, for picked Cotton 2/6, Myrtle Wax 10d, Wood Ashes 7-½ d per Bushel, Tobacco Ashes 1/3, and 1/ per lb. for Tow Wick. He begs the Inhabitants in and about the City will be careful of their Ashes, as he can supply them with good Soap upon more reasonable Terms than they can make it.6

Many chandlers made soap as well as candles. Freer Armston, "Chandler and Soap Boiler" in Norfolk, offered his wares in Williamsburg. Tallow candles sold at 11 pence per pound by the box and soap at 6 pence per pound by the box and 7 pence in smaller quantities.7

Candles were also sold by local merchants and other retailers. In November 1771 John Minson Galt, a Williamsburg apothecary, sold over 250 pounds of candles at his shop, including 95 pounds to the "Playhouse."8

Many people relied on commercially available candles. Landon Carter feared he would have to "be contented to sit in the dark" because the candles he ordered from a Norfolk chandler had not arrived at Sabine Hall and he could borrow none from his neighbors.9 The Burwells relied on a chandler in Surry County to supply them with candles at Carter's Grove.10 William Byrd evidently produced his own candles at Westover. He wrote his overseer who had complained about not being supplied with adequate lighting:

Then as to your being often forct, like mad people, to sit in the dark without a candle, I have this to say, that orders have been given from the beginning, to furnish you with one every night, and if those orders have at any time been disobeyd, upon the least complaint from you, that grievance too would have been redresst. But I understand the candles 4. are not big enough for you. I am sorry we have not wax or at least mould candles to light you in your lucubrations. Had your Dear Friend Mr. Stevens supplyd us with more tallow, perhaps we might have been better able to light up the with House with bigger candles. In the mean time, if such as you have by the judgment of two good men would burn an hour and a half, that is full long enough to read by candle-light, which is not good for the eyes, and after that meditation and devotion might fill up the rest of winters evening.11

Tallow Candles

The best tallow candles, according to both Chambers Encyclopedia and the Universal Magazine, were made from half sheep tallow and half beef tallow. Other kinds of fat, such as hog fat, made candles smell, smoke, and sputter. Tallow candles were either dipped or molded, but preparation of the tallow for both methods was identical.

When the fats were weighed and mixed in the proper proportions, they were cut into pieces to hasten melting and mixed in a boiler with a cavity around the top to prevent the fat from boiling over. After the tallow completely liquefied over the heat, it was thoroughly skimmed of impurities. If candles were to be molded, some water was mixed with the tallow to help precipitate any impurities missed in skimming. But if the candles were dipped, water could not 5. added to the melted fat until the first three coats were applied to the wicks, because the dry wick would absorb water and cause the candle to sputter and possibly crack. Whether water was added or not, the tallow was poured out of the boiler through a sieve into a tub with a tap.

Wicks for tallow candles were made of spun cotton either three or four strands thick depending on the candle's size. Candlewick was sold by most retail merchants in Virginia.

To dip candles the liquid was drawn from the tub into a vessel called a mold, sink, or (as the French call it) an abyss. This vessel, triangular shaped with the pointed end at the bottom, was about ten inches wide at the top and the sides about fifteen inches. Its length varied. Supported by two feet, the vessel was placed on a kind of bench with a rim to catch the droppings as the candles drained. The chandler strung wicks on two sticks called broches. The number of wicks depended on the number of candles intended to be made in a pound, whether 6, 8, 10, 12, or 16. If the candles were to be two ounces each, sixteen wicks were required; if about three ounce candles, there were twelve wicks.

The worker held the broches parallel to each other by putting the second and third finger of each hand between the sticks. The wicks were dipped two or three times for their first layer of tallow and then drained over the vessel until the tallow hardened. A nearby rack held the broches until the candles cooled. For the second dipping the wicks were immerged three times, drained, and hung to cool; and for their third layer they were immerged only twice. The operation was repeated as many times as necessary to produce the desired thickness and weight. With the last dip they were "necked," i. e., plunged below the part of the wick where the other layers ended.

During the dipping, the tallow had to be often stirred, and more fat 6. could be added to maintain the level in the dipping sink. When the candles were cool and hard, the bottoms were finished by passing them over a heated, flat brazen plate to melt down and even them up.

Tallow was also molded into candles. The tallow, as mentioned above, was prepared the same way as for making dipped candles. Candle molds, according to Chambers Encyclopedia, were usually made of brass, tin, or lead. Tin was considered the best. Pewter candle molds--fluted, ribbed, and plain--are often mentioned in Virginia records.

Bayberry or Myrtle Wax Candles

In a report about Virginia prepared in 1698, the authors observed that an advantage of the colony was plentiful "Myrtle-berries." They claimed the berries "boyled up to a Wax, make as good Candles as the best Wax Candles whatsoever, the Snuff whereof instead of stinking, does really perfume like Incense."12

Berries of the myrtle bush or bayberry bush (also called Virginia myrtle and candleberry bush) provide a wax that can be used for both medicinal salves and candles. The shrubs grow along the East Coast from Maine to Florida and are most abundant near the seashore. Although some varieties grow in England, use of the wax seems to have originated in America. In his History and Present State of Virginia, written in 1705, Robert Beverley observed that the use of bayberries to produce wax was a "very modern" discovery "notwithstanding these Countries have been so long settled." He was enthusiastic about the qualities of bayberry candles:

At the Mouth of their Rivers, and all along upon the Sea and Bay, and near many of their Creeks and Swamps, grows the Myrtle, bearing a Berry, of which they make a hard brittle Wax, of a curious green Colour, which by refining becomes almost transparent. Of this they make Candles, which are never greasie to the Touch, nor melt with lying in the hottest 7. Weather: Neither does the Snuff of these ever offend the Smell, like that of a Tallow-Candle; but instead of being disagreeable, if an Accident puts a Candle out, it yields a pleasant Fragrancy to all that are in the Room; insomuch that nice People often put them out, on purpose to have the Incense of their expiring Snuff.

Beverley went on to briefly describe the method of refining myrtle wax:

The Method of managing these Berries, is by boiling them in water, till they come to be entirely dissol'd, except the Stone, or Seed, in the Middle, which amounts in Quantity to about half the Bulk of the Berry…13

Mark Catesby in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (London, 1722) provided a more detailed description of refining the wax as practiced in eastern North Carolina:

In November and December, at which times the berries are mature, a man with his family will remove from his home to some island or sand bank near the sea, where these trees most abound, taking with him kettles to boil the berries in. He builds a hut with Palmeto leaves, for the shelter of himself and family while they stay, which is commonly three or four weeks. The man cuts down the trees, while the children strip off the berries into a porridge-pot, and having put water to them, they boil them till the oil floats, which is skimm'd off into another vessle. These is repeated till there remains no more oil. This, when cold, hardens to the consistence of wax, and is of a dirty green colour. Then they boil it again, and clarify it in brass kettles, which gives it a transparent greeness. These candles burn a long time, and yield a grateful smell. They usually add a fourth part of tallow, which makes them burn clearer.14


Myrtle wax was a more important produce in North Carolina than in Virginia. During the 1730s myrtle wax was imported into Virginia from North Carolina, but by the 1740s myrtle wax was being exported from Virginia to the West Indies.

Myrtle wax was purchased and resold by local merchants from the second quarter of the eighteenth century. The inventory of Richard Walker's store in Middlesex County included 80-½ pounds of myrtle wax valued at 7-½ pence a pound and 5-½ pounds of myrtle wax candles at 10 pence a pound. John Greenhow of Williamsburg advertised myrtle wax for sale at his store in 1766.15 Ten years later Morto Brien, a Williamsburg chandler, announced that he would pay 10 pence a pound for myrtle wax.16 Myrtle wax candles were the second most expensive kind, spermaceti being the dearest.

Beeswax Candles

Honey bees were imported into Virginia in the early seventeenth century, and while beeswax was exported from Virginia, it never became an important article of trade.

Beeswax was procured from honeycomb after hearing it and pressing out the honey. The wax was melted in a large kettle with some water over a moderate fire. The liquified wax was then strained through linen, and afterward the scum removed with a tile or piece of wet wood. This completed the purification of the wax, but to improve the appearance the wax was sometimes blanched to a pure white color.

The blanching or bleaching of wax was performed by melting the yellow wax and throwing it while hot into cold water or by spreading it into very thin layers. Some candlemakers used a cauldron with a pipe at the bottom so that as the wax melted it flowed gradually into a large tub of water. The water tub was fitted with a large wooden cylinder turning constantly, and the wax formed into ribbons. As the surface of this cylinder was always wet, the 9. wax did not stick to it. The movement of the cylinder distributed the strips of wax through the water tub. The wax was then laid out on linen cloth and exposed to air, sun, and dew. The wax is then remelted and formed several times and allowed to weather between meltings until it was a bright white.

Beeswax candles were made of white or yellow wax with a cotton or flax wick slightly twisted. Three methods of applying wax to the wick were used.

Ladle method. A dozen wicks, twisted and cut to equal lengths, were tied at intervals around an iron hoop. The workman filled a large ladle with melted wax from the tinned copper bason of wax over a pan of coals. He gently poured the wax on top of each wick so that the wax covered the whole wick and the surplus fell back into the bason. For cylindrical candles the workman continued to pour from the top of the wick; for conical shapes he poured the first three ladles on at the top of the wick, the next over the lower three-quarters of it, the fifth over the bottom half, and the sixth over the lower three-quarters. Then he continued pouring on wax until the candles reached the desired size.

The candles while still hot and soft were removed from the hoop and laid close together in a double-up feather bed to retain the heat. One by one they were rolled on a smooth surface (usually a walnut table) with a large square instrument of boxwood. When conical candles were smooth, the big end was cut and a conical hole (for the candlestick pin) made in it. Cylindrical candles were not given this indentation. Water was used on the various instruments to prevent the wax from sticking.

Hand method. Beginning with a cotton or flax wick of the desired length, the workman attached it to a hook in the wall. Wax was worked with water in a deep narrow cauldron of tinned brass. The candlemaker coated his hands with olive oil or lard and took a piece of wax and formed it around the 10. wick, making the big end of the candle closer to the wall. In other respects the hand method was the same as the ladle method, except that the candles were not put in a feather bed but rolled on the table as soon as they are formed and that the table and rolling instruments were oiled rather than watered.

Drawing method. Drawn candles were produced on an apparatus of two large wooden rollers turned by handles. As much as 400 yards of wick at one time could be coated with this method. As the wick was wound and unwound between the two rollers, it passed through melted wax in a brass bason and, at the same time, through holes of an instrument (like that used for drawing wire) attached to the sides of the bason. [See G, H, and I on the attached illustration.] The candles were then cut to the desired lengths, rolled for smoothness, and allowed to harden. Only cylindrical candles were produced by the drawing method. Spermaceti Candles. Spermaceti candles, derived from the oil of the so-called "sperm" whale, were considered a superior kind of lighting by the second half of the eighteenth century. These candles were both exotic and expensive. Fithian recorded that the Carters sent some "large clear and very elegant Spermaceti Candles" to his room.17

Spermaceti oil is found in the head cavity of the sperm whale. In the eighteenth century the oil was used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, as well as for candles. To separate wax from the whale oil the oil is heated over a gentle fire, then molded; when cold and drained, the wax is taken out and melted over again until well purified and very white. WE have no evidence of the method used to form candles from the wax.

Spermaceti candles were said to be the finest as they were "smooth, with a fine floss, free from rings and scars, superior to the finest wax-candles in colour and lustre; and, when genuine, leave no spots or stain on the finest [fabrics]."18


George Washington experimented with tallow and spermaceti candles, concluding that spermaceti was over twice as expensive for the length of time it burned. Washington was unimpressed by the clearness of light from spermaceti candles, since he never mentioned the quality of the light in the records of his experiments.19

Just as there were various materials for candles, there were also various shapes. In the preceding discussion of production methods two shapes, cylindrical and conical, were mentioned. In addition there were other specific forms, such as the taper and flambeau.

According to Chambers Encyclopedia, a taper was a tall wax candle placed in a candlestick used at funeral processions and other church services. Tapers were made in various sizes. In some countries, notably Italy, they were cylindrical; but in most places such as England and France they were conical or tapered. The word may come from the description of the shape or from the Anglo-Saxon word, tapen, meaning wax candle. Both kinds are pierced at the bottom for the pin of the candlestick.

Tapers were produced either by the ladle or hand method. For a description of these methods see pages 9 and 10.

A flambeua, as defined by Chambers Encyclopedia, is a lighting device made of several thick wicks covered with white or yellow wax. (We assume this means beeswax.) Flambeaux were burned at night in the streets, at funeral processions, during illuminations, and so forth.

Flambeaux were square, about three feet long, and made of four coarse hemp wicks loosely twisted. They were produced by ladling melted wax over the suspended wicks and letter the wax fun down. This was done two times. Then the wicks (at this stage called "branches") were laid to harden and then rolled on a table for smoothing. Four branches were joined by means of a red hot iron, 12. partially melting the outside of each so the pieces would hold together. More wax was poured on until the flambeau reached the required size (usually between one and a half and three pounds). The final step was polishing the flambeau along the angles where the branches joined; the polishing was done with a wooden instrument.


^1 Hunter D. Farish, ed., Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774 (Williamsburg, 1943), p. 65.
^2 Universal Magazine, volume 4 (May 1749), p. 229.
^3 The estate inventory of Dr. Nicholas Flood, taken May 1776, includes both white and pimento candles (Richmond County Will Book 7, 1767-1787, pp. 239.270). The Oxford English Dictionary makes mention of pimento candles, but it is not certain whether they are made from the wax of the berries or from the wood of the Pimenta officinalis tree, the source of allspice.
^4 PRO Customs 16/1.
^5 Virginia Gazette (Rind, ed.) 22 March 1770.
^6 Virginia Gazette (Purdie, ed.) 26 July 1776.
^7 Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon, ed.) 27 April 1769.
^8 J. M. Galt Account Book, 1770, 1780, f. 27.
^9 Jack P. Greene, ed., The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, 1752-1778 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965), Volume 1, p. 375.
^10 Carter's Grove ledgers, passim.
^11 Marion Tinling, ed., The Correspondence of the Three William Byrds of Westover, Virginia, 1684-1776 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977), Volume 2, p. 573.
^12 Hartwell, Blair and Chilton, The Present State of Virginia, and the College (London, 1727), p. 7.
^13 Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, ed. Louis B. Wright (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947), pp. 137-38.
^14 Mark Catesby, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands… (London, 1771), volume 1, page 69.
^15 Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon, ed.) 11 April 1766.
^16 Virginia Gazette (Purdie, ed.) 26 July 1776.
^17 Farish, ed., Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian …, p. 54.
^18 Chambers Encyclopedia, "Spermaceti."
^19 John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Diaries of George Washington, 1748-1799 (Boston and New York, 1925), Volume II, pp. 452, 453-54.