Not Yet Snuffed

In which we read a 1902 article on the state of the candle industry.

candlemaking 1900
In January, 1902, The Idler, An Illustrated Monthly Magazine, published in London, came out with the sixth article in its series “The War of Titans for the Commercial Supremacy of the World.” The article, “A Light Industry:—Candle Making” by F. A. Field, was prefaced with this explanation of the series:
Under this heading we have dealt with American engineering enterprise, with British energy in far Eastern fields, with German state-aided industries, and with the advent of Colonial enterprise and capital in the home market. In this and the immediately succeeding articles we shall deal chiefly with British concerns which still hold, and are extending their hold upon, the markets of the world, and with some of the successful American invaders. The eyes of the world are turned to the competition between America, Germany and Britain, and every new move is of interest.
The article enlightens us on the current state of the candlemaking industry, and I transcribe it here in full, staying faithful to wording, spelling, and punctuation, to the best of my ability, and, as well, including the illustrations presented with the article. I did not fact-check F. A. Field’s work—he comes from a long line of candlemakers, as you shall see—and the only statement in the article I feel qualified to take issue with is the statement that beeswax cannot be molded, because, obviously, it can be. It is what I do. But I have never successfully made beeswax candles using metal molds, which presumably was the mold material in use at the time of this article. Also, Madame Tussaud practiced her art of making wax figures with molded beeswax, dating back well before this article was written, but her molds were ceramic and, from what I understand, vegetable tallow or somesuch was mixed in with the wax. So, without further ado, from 1902:
A Light Industry:—Candle Making, by F. A. Field.
In a much re-printed extract from a cheery little article which recently appeared in an evening paper, a writer unhesitatingly dooms the candle to speedy oblivion, and prophesies that it will presently be nought but an interesting subject for the curious gaze of museum visitors. It would be instructive to know to what extent he had been at pains to convince himself that he was writing even of a very likelihood, and upon what grounds he accordingly based his somewhat contemptuous dismissal of an old and tried public servant. Similarly, one day, when the train into Waterloo Station was passing the Candle and Soap Factory with which this article deals, a passenger in my hearing said: “Candles! Who uses candles now? I wonder how those poor beggars manage to live!”

Therefore I should like at the outset to retort to these and many other good people who probably think in like strain, in the catch-words of the prosecuting counsel of the celebrated Tichborne trial: “Would you be surprised to hear” — that all the evidence that those who ought to know can adduce goes to prove that the candle industry so far from becoming moribund is more robust than ever, despite the inroads made into the realms of lighting by gas and electric illumination?

No, indeed, the candle is not yet snuffed out, and I see no reason why an illuminant which has existed from the remotest periods should in our generation at least suffer absolute extinction.

A single week’s output of candles from the manufactory in which I am interested, would have lasted King Alfred—whom history connects with this industry—with continuous light day and night, “one down, t’other come on,” from the time he took to candle making and cake burning until the present year of the celebration of his millenary,—and even now he would have had a few centuries’ store to go on with, had fate not decreed his earlier decease.

Figures, they say, can be made to prove anything, but simple statements based on hard facts are uncontrovertible, and while it would be difficult to give exact amounts, the imports of raw candle materials (mostly paraffin wax) into Great Britain prove conclusively, even had we no evidence from manufacturers themselves, that the consumption of candles is and always has been increasing, and last year must have reached in this country alone the enormous total of over 60,000 tons.

Who uses all these candles? It would seem that while the proportion on the above basis is only about three pounds per head of population per annum, yet never were more candles burnt than now, and these by all classes of society, literally from King to coster. This also goes to prove the oft-quoted saying with reference to light, as to other things—the more one has the more one wants. Amongst the “upper ten” innumerable candles have certainly given way to electric light. Still candles are seen in the candelabra and piano sconces and on the dining tables. Middle-class people use more gas; still candles are found in nearly every household, in reading-lamps, and for kitchen and bedroom use, at least. But in the lower walks of life, the candle enjoys undoubted sway. It is cheap, portable, convenient, and not so troublesome and dangerous as a lamp, and it produces a soft homely comfortable light, which endears it to its humble patrons, who are now-a-days amongst its most conservative supporters.

But, besides domestic consumption, there is a wide field in which the candle continues to gain ground, and that is for use in portable lamps, such as for carriages, carts, cycles, etc. Here again competition seems only to have encouraged its use—the finest construction of oil lamps, the brilliant acetylene gas, and even electricity fail to oust it from popular favour, and it is particularly noticeable how cyclists are increasingly adopting it in preference to other forms of lighting, no doubt by reason of its unique convenience. Again, in camp and under canvas, in the Army and in the Navy, with all that science can devise or money buy, the candle appears to be quite indispensable. The Government services, in fact, use millions of pounds weight yearly, and it is difficult to see how anything could be found which would so readily and conveniently be adapted to the particular purposes for which candles are here employed.

But I think the foregoing sufficiently demonstrates the important place that the candle still holds in the lighting world, and it is my present purpose to give some idea of the working of a comparatively modest yet not altogether unimportant manufactory, such as, with its brethren, is continuously engaged in their own division in the War of the Titans for the World’s Trade Supremacy.

In the factory of which I write, nearly every conceivable class and kind of candle and soap is produced, and as each goes forth to the world it finds arrayed against it a formidable host of competitors ready to displace it at the first sign of weakness, whether in price, quality, or properly organised selling energy. And while the candle and soap “warriors” of Great Britain vie with each other to produce the cheapest and best articles for the home centres, they have a still harder battle to fight abroad, where Germany, Belgium, France and other countries enter the lists under the advantageous cover of those protective duties against which our industrial army is powerless, particularly when the foreigner insinuates his goods in the midst of strife of our own keen home competition.

Of what material are candles made? Not a few people talk as if “tallow” were still their chief constituent, and beg you not to spill the “fat” on their carpets as you ascend to bed. But the tallow candle of our grandparents now takes a back seat. Fully 85 per cent. of candles burnt in Great Britain are made from paraffin wax, more or less stiffened by varying admixtures of stearine. Then come stearine candles themselves, and finally beeswax, spermaceti, and other candles composed of mixtures of more or less rare waxes. We have said “good-bye” to the tallow candle—it is a smoky, smelly, wasteful light—as I shall presently explain, but the beeswax candle still remains with us, the most expensive and luxurious, but quite the most respectable and venerable of all. Hereby you have a picture representing the manufacture of wax candles at Field’s factory in 1749, and it is noteworthy that in the same establishment these are being made to-day on precisely similar lines, and actually with some of the same implements of wood as were then in use. Some how the trade in pure wax candles does not diminish, the greatest quantity of course finding their end in church work, others in great houses, while not a few are required for carriage lamps. They are simply made. To the hoop you see are suspended a number of wicks, and this is hung over a small vat of the melted wax, which by means of a ladle is poured over the wicks as the hoop is revolved slowly by hand. When sufficient thickness of wax is obtained they are allowed to cool, taken off the hoop, rolled smooth on a marble slab, the tips being fashioned by means of a little flat piece of wood suitably shaped. The process looks easy enough, but really requires a long apprenticeship to perform perfectly.

making candles 1749
Ye art and mysterie of makinge wax candles by Sarah Field & Sons, 1749.

Spermaceti is obtained from the body and head of the whale, and when refined is the most beautiful white, crystalline substance. These candles are also “old fashioned,” and made now exactly as over a century ago. But they are cast in moulds, or “hand frames” as they are technically termed, about a couple of dozen being turned out at a time. A little wire pin, which secures each wick across the mouth of its mould (the tip end being fixed with a wooden peg), produces a little mark across the end of the candle, which many people still take as an indication of its being genuine spermaceti, though small quantities of candles of any description (except beeswax, which cannot be moulded) are frequently made in this manner. Spermaceti candles, be it mentioned, were for well over fifty years the only known standard of light used in measuring the illuminating power of gas, etc.—“one candle power” being the light given by a spermaceti candle, weighing six to the pound and burning 120 grains per hour; and this standard of light still obtains in some foreign countries, where considerable quantities of spermaceti candles are used for this purpose.

From remote times the wax candle pertained to the rich, while the poor illumined their homes with such light as its tallow variety or rushlight afforded. About 1730–40 the whale fishers enabled a new but aristocratic competitor to vaunt its claims as a sperm candle in competition with wax. And so matters remained until the early years of the 19th century, when chemistry, personified in the great M. Chevreuil, took the old tallow candle in hand, dissected it, and added another capability to illumination by candle light. He discovered that fats, such as tallow and its kindred, instead of being one simple body, are compositions of three distinct substances, and besides showing us the way to separate these in a commercially practical manner, appointed to each its proper sphere of utility.

To-day “rule of thumb” working in great industries is obsolete—gone with the tallow candle. Competition obliges each manufacturer to know as much as his rival, and a little more—if possible. Chevreuil’s disciples in the candle and soap world are legion, and their work of discovery and application of the laws of nature to our industry unremitting and arduous, and no manufactory could now hope to even hold its own without its complement of experienced chemists. While the heart of a factory may be found in its boiler-house, the brain that initiates the active processes, which good management carries to successful commercial finality, lurks in the laboratory and revels in a bewildering atmosphere of acid fumes.

Chevreuil's disciple
Chevreuil's disciple — lurks in the laboratory.

From tallow, palm, and similar oils, by treatment in huge vats with slaked lime and afterwards by pressure, we obtain the beautiful hard white substance called “saponified” stearine, which melts at 130° Fahr. By another route to almost the same end, we have “distilled” stearine of lesser quality, melting at 120° Fahr. Both these are very largely used in candle making, as they do not gutter, but burn in a dry, clean manner—and of tallow, stearine forms a small half. Here you see a corner of a large factory devoted entirely to the manufacture of stearine candles for the Government, the short, dumpy candles for the Navy, the long, thin ones for the Army – now using many tons weekly in South Africa. The second constituent of tallow, and in almost equal proportion to stearine, is oleine, a reddish-brown liquid oil which is mostly used for soap making—such pure oil soap bearing a very high reputation amongst cloth manufacture rs and dyers, and as a soft soap largely used in laundries. This rather crowded view of a portion of an oil soap factory does not convey more than a slight impression of the not a1together drawing-room-like fittings of such an establishment, which appearance, however, is in inverse ratio to its utilitarian splendour. The third and last component of tallow is the well known glycerine, of which there is only a small proportion. At first sight in its crude state it is somewhat akin in appearance to oleine, but its smell is different, and moreover it is not an oil. To get it white as the public know it, it is carefully distilled and refined, but in its crude state is largely employed in the manufacture of explosives, such as dynamite.

Short, dumpy candles for the Navy, and long, thin ones for the Army.

oil soap factory
The appearance of an oil soap factory is in inverse ratio to its utilitarian splendour.

What our ancestors wasted, then, when burning tallow candles! As I write, good tallow can be bought for under £30 per ton. It contains about 45 per cent. of fine stearine, saleable at £45 per ton, the same, say of oleine at £30, and from 7 to 10 per cent. of glycerine, which, refined, fetches £65 per ton. By thus splitting up the fats, the candle manufacturer obtains about 25 per cent. gross profit on his original outlay, and supplies the world with three excellent commodities where his predecessors could offer but one—a smoky, smelly, snuffy, tallow dip.

I mentioned before that by far and away the greatest number, and also the cheapest, of candles are made from paraffin wax—the residue of paraffin oil.

About fifty years ago this substance was practically unknown, and to Dr. James Young belongs the honour of having created the paraffin industry, as in 1851 his researches led to the commercial distillation of peat and shale, from which paraffin oil and various hydrocarbons resulted, with a small percentage of the solid wax. For years the Scotch shale beds held the monopoly of the paraffin market, and large amounts of capital were sunk in the exploitation of various producing companies and much ingenuity displayed, as by Henderson in his retorts, in the practical manipulation of the raw material. Nature, however, has been kinder to our American cousins in this business, by doing their distillation for them, and the huge oil fields worked by the Standard Oil Company, produce paraffin wax almost as a bye-product, the petroleum gushing from their wells yielding about 2½ per cent. of the solid material, but still in such quantity as to enable them to sell the wax at a lower profitable price than is possible by the Scotch producers.

At this point it may not be amiss to refer to ozokerit, itself akin to paraffin. Ozokerit is a natural mineral wax, found chiefly in Boryslaw in Galician Poland, and when distilled (a process patented 30 years ago by the late Frederick Field, F.R.S., and Dr. Siemssen), yields a white wax of exceedingly high melting point, viz., 145° Fahr., ordinary refined paraffin waxes ranging from 120° to 135°. Candles made from ozokerit are therefore most suitable for burning in tropical climates, ball-rooms, etc.; but owing to the costly process of obtaining the wax, their price is necessarily rather high. By another treatment ozokerit is converted into ceresine, a product resembling beeswax, which it supplants in many ways.

Several other waxes are employed in small quantities in candle making, such as Myrtle, Japan and Carnauba wax all of vegetable origin, but they are not of sufficient importance to warrant a lengthy notice here.

Now that we know something of the materials usually employed in a candle factory, I must tell you that, given clear, good burning wax, of whatever nature, the wick which acts as a burner to consume this, is the most important factor of the whole. The description of plait, which consists of various numbers of threads, and the peculiar pickling process to which this is subjected, have all their bearing upon the successful burning of the candle. For instance, the wick which is prepared to suit a paraffin candle is no good in a wax one, and an ozokerit wick could not be employed in a stearine candle. There is a large variety of chemicals employed in the pickle in which wicks are soaked before they are ready for the candle, and after remaining in this pickle solution until thoroughly saturated, they are wrung out in a centrifugal machine and dried, when the hanks are wound on the little bobbins which are seen in this illustration of a “Wick Room,” about all of which much more might be said did space permit.

wick room
The pickled candle plait is wound on bobbins in the wick-room.

The wound bobbins are conveyed to the candle factory proper, where they are slipped on to the pins below the candle moulds, on which they revolve when called upon to supply fresh lengths of wick for successive out-turns o candles. The paraffin candles are seen protruding from the machines like so many regiments of soldiers, and the machine itself consists of a closed tank, having the moulds passing right through it vertically in any convenient number, the latest improvements by E. Cowles, of Hounslow, enabling some 300 candles to be made at a single casting. The tips of the moulds are independent of, but fit these latter closely at their lower ends, and are all attached to “pistons” having a common fixture below to a “driving board.” Below the driving board are the bobbins, and the wicks are passed from these through the lengths of the pistons and the tips into the moulds. Once this is done, the machine is self-wicking until all the cotton plait is unwound from the bobbins. The action is simple. The first cast of candles are blanks, used to clear the moulds and draw the wicks up. The moulds being filled with the molten wax, this is allowed to cool, assisted by water circulating in the tank, when by rack and pinion the driving board is raised, forcing up the pistons and tips, and with them the candles, which draw up fresh lengths of wick into the moulds. A set of clamps, made to correspond with the moulds, hold the candles in position right above the moulds they have just quitted, which are then ready for another charge of material, and when this is cooled, the wicks of the clamped candles may be cut from those below, and the candles removed for packing.

paraffin candles
The paraffin candles like so many regiments of soldiers.

cowles candle machine
Up-to-date candle machine.

To describe the various forms in which candles are made would be impossible here. Suffice it to say that whilst mostly round, and either plain-ended, or provided with the now well-known “self-fitting” butt (invented by J. L. Field in 1861), candles are frequently square, fluted, twisted, cabled, and of every shade and tint from white to black, and in sizes range from the tiny Christmas-tree taper, weighing 400 to the pound, to huge altar candles, seven feet high, containing over 50 lbs. of wax.

Cousins of the candle, such as night lights, bougies, and lighting tapers or spills, must have a word of description. The former appeared first about the year 1820, and were made as “wax mortars” by Messrs. Field for King George IV. Nowadays, an immense trade has been built up of this little article, and their accurate performance is a matter of much delicate handling and scientific application, such as only their manufacturer can appreciate. The blank bodies of paraffin wax or composite material are cast in machines, while the cups to contain them are separately provided with the hard wax-coated wick, supported by that little tin sustainer at its base, which serves to keep the wick upright, when the material in the cup is rendered liquid by the heat of the flame. A cheap form of night light, called “bucket lights,” composed of inferior substances, is sold in millions for burning in coloured glass lamps for gardens, etc., and these are already being largely ordered for prospective fêtes in connection with the forthcoming Coronation.

Bougies, or twisted coils of thick wax taper used at one time to be more largely consumed, and accompanied by the stick of sealing wax, were the ever necessary companion to the letter writer of days before the advent of gummed envelopes. Beyond the coiling into shape, their method of manufacture is the same as that of lighting wick or tapers, which is shown in the accompanying picture. The cotton strands are wound off one drum on to another via the steam-heated dish of melted wax, coloured or white, just beyond which is a little plate having various sized holes to correspond with the thickness of taper required to be made. A certain number of immersions and drawings through consecutive sizes of holes, and the wick is ready to be cut into lengths, and the ends “feathered” to enable each spill to be lighted without delay, an operation which simply consists in dipping the ends of a bunch of wicks into boiling water and smartly shaking them till clear of the molten wax.

The cotton strands are wound from one drum to another.

So curt a description of the ancient and still important craft of candle making would be still less complete were I to omit mention of the extraordinary penetrating power of candle light as compared with that of other illuminants. Quite recently figures have been furnished by an eminent gas expert, showing that candles give the strongest light through gloom and fogs: oil lamps make a bad second, while the much-vaunted electricity comes in nowhere. Shakespeare must have foreseen this striking result when he wrote in the “Merchant of Venice’’:
How far yon little candle throws its beams,
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
It is a curious fact that while few large soap makers are candle makers too, yet many large candle manufacturers are also producers of soap, and particularly toilet soap, the two trades seem somehow to be so closely allied. But the toilet soap manufacture of to-day is vastly different from that employed even twenty years ago, as a glance at the illustrations of the milling floor of this branch of Messrs. Field’s factory will enable you to realise. It is really more like an engineer’s workshop, rolling and crushing mills, and other unaccustomed machinery meet the eye. It is true the melting coppers are here, but above, out of sight, and of smaller scale than those used by a past generation. Latter-day toilet soap is “milled,”—a process producing a harder and more perfect soap than could ever be otherwise obtained. The liquid soap, composed of the purest selected fats and other necessary ingredients, and neutralised so as to avoid affecting the most sensitive skin, is passed over rollers and falls in form of thin ribbons on to a series of continuously moving longitudinal wire meshes, housed in a long closed chamber, through which hot air is passed. Thus the soap is dried to such an extent that it is only pliable enough to be worked up into proper form, instead of being “water made to stand upright,” which was so often truly quoted of the earlier productions of the soapmaker’s art. The dried ribbons are again passed through a rolling mill, when those delightful perfumes are thoroughly incorporated by this kneading which go to make such soaps as the old “United Service,” “White Rose,” and the like, so justly admired. The scented ribbons are now transferred to a “Peloteuse,” or barring machine, by the action of which they are compressed into a homogeneous mass and passed out at the front end of the machine in any desired shape of continuous bar, which is cut off into convenient lengths, which are subsequently again divided, by hand, into tablet size.

soap factory
The latter-day toilet soap factory resembles an engineer’s workshop.

Such, then, is briefly the present method of making toilet soaps, but in spite of all improvements in process or machinery the difficulties with which the practical soap maker has to contend are great, for though the chemist may clearly indicate the broad principles of his work, the ever-increasing number of new soaps, new scents, and new shapes he has to produce, create for the soap maker himself never-ending problems in management of detail, of which the average layman can have no conception.

Even so slight an outline of the operations of one of the oldest commercial houses in Great Britain would surely have received better treatment by other pens than mine, but a certain personal interest in the subject matter of this article may, perhaps, be excused in one whose forefathers have, for some nine generations, literally as well as metaphorically, laboured on the same ground.

The Idler, Volume 20

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