The Scarecrow Points

In which from an old book, a new direction.

beeswax blog
My research into wax and candle emissions began as so much research does nowadays, by typing a few simple words such as “candle emissions” and “candle emission studies” into a search engine and wading through the various results. After swimming through a few research papers, articles, and abstracts with titles such as “Determining and Evaluating the Emissions of PCDD/PCDF, PAH and Short-Chain Aldehydes in Combustion Gases of Candles,” I admit to feeling a bit waterlogged and stoppered. No one study mentioned, as far as I could tell, negative ions, and most were hard-pressed to mention which type of wax was even being studied—often it was just “candle wax.” Now what does that mean? Paraffin? Beeswax? What? When studies were broken down by type of wax, the scientific nature of the study and its numerical results meant nothing to me: a chemist I am not. All I could tell was that beeswax may have emitted a bit more of this, a bit less of that, but I had no idea what “this” or “that” was, or why it mattered. All narrative conclusions, though, did seem to point to one thing: Waxes that are made into candles and burned vary little in what they add to the surrounding air, and what they do add is nearly negligible depending, of course, on the size and ventilation of the space as well as the number of candles being burned at one time. Also, wax is one thing and additives, such as manufactured fragrances, are another. This all seemed very sensible to me, and perhaps enough to debunk the whole beeswax-negative-ion patter, but how could I bring it home, resolve the issue in my head, without knowing how, where, when, and why that negative-ion patter began?

I felt a bit like Dorothy, at a crossroads, wondering which way to go. How was I to get at this negative-ion thing without the help of a chemist, a knowledgeable person who could explain these studies to me? But if I don’t understand chemistry in the first place, the very jargon of it, how would I understand a chemist explaining chemistry and where would I find a chemist willing to try? At the time, I lived way out in the middle of nowhere—though I tended to think of it as merely an edge bordering on somewhere—but a university, of course, might harbor a chemist and there were a few in the general area. Should I take a course? Shoot off an email to a department head? Suggest a class experiment on beeswax candle emissions specifically looking for negative ions?

Scarecrow, which way to go?

I idly returned to the studies I had found online, having bookmarked some, downloaded others, and I began to read through reference lists. It was there that I found my scarecrow, my map, my bible, listed as a reference for a work in progress titled “Beeswax: Production, Properties, Composition, Control.” The reference was to a book from 1947: The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes. That sounded straightforward. I found snippets of it online and became keen to read it in full and to have my own copy, printed and bound the old-fashioned way. Amazon offered three options ranging in price from $95 (used–acceptable) to $500 (used–good). AbeBooks offered modern-day reprints, $15 to $20, but these reprints too often harbor strange hieroglyphics substituting for letters and words and who can read them? Then I found one original book, used, in good condition—a former library book—for $22 plus shipping. I ordered without hesitation, and soon The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes, by Albin H. Warth, Reinhold Publishing Corporation, New York, New York arrived at my local post office.

It was a luscious day with a dull winter’s afternoon stretching before me, a fire in the wood stove. Upon return from the post office I unwrapped my new old book. I ran my fingers over its dusty cloth cover, faded blue. Upon opening it, I noticed a large printed label, a bookplate: Walter Schroeder Library MSOE Milwaukee School of Engineering, Presented by Fred Portz, Sr., and a quick Google search led me to Mr. Portz’s son’s obituary. I stopped to wonder why I was suddenly online, googling Fred Portz. I shoved the computer aside and turned to the book’s title page, where the book had been stamped “DISCARDED BY MILWAUKEE SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING LIBRARY.” I learned the author, Albin H. Warth, was Chemical Director at The Crown Cork and Seal Co., Baltimore, Maryland. I was tempted to get back online to look him up because certainly that would be interesting, but then I read the Foreword, which led to the Table of Contents, and there was no looking back or aside.

The journey began.

And this was a journey, a journey into wax, fueled by curiosity. And despite talk of curiosity being a killer, as if we were all just cats desperately seeking the next life, I find curiosity to be more like life itself, giving birth to ideas, thoughts, queries, projects, answers, questions—some of which will be short-lived, certainly, quickly dying out, but others of a longer duration—and, yes, curiosity can lead to dangerous situations, but, also, to seemingly benign old books that somehow, someway, open new worlds.

The Table of Contents listed a cornucopia of chapters and sub-chapters organized by general type of wax. Chapter headings were in small caps, which I love, but can’t seem to replicate here (the entire book is set in a no-nonsense serif type), and chapters included such areas of interest as: The Natural Waxes; Fossil Waxes, Earth Waxes, and Lignite Paraffins; Petroleum Waxes; Synthetic Waxes and Wax Compounds; Emulsifiable Waxes, Waxy Acids and Metallic Soaps. Below each chapter heading an indented running list, in italics, foretold what, specifically, to expect. For example, within The Natural Waxes:
Waxes from Insects (Beeswax, Scale Insect Waxes) · Waxes from Animals (Wool Wax, Spermaceti, Liquid Waxes—Marine Oils) · Waxes from Plants (Formation in Arid Plants, Palm Tree Waxes, Candelilla Wax, Flax Wax, Cotton Wax, Sugar-Cane Wax, Leaf Blade Waxes, Japan Wax, Myrtle Wax, Cranberry Wax, Fruit Waxes, Liquid Vegetable Wax, Floral Waxes) · Waxes from Gum-Resins · Waxes from Micro-organisms.
Among the fossil and earth waxes we discover algae wax and peat wax. Under petroleum waxes, paraffin waxes. Synthetic waxes include paraffin wax and hydrogenated waxes. Through the Table of Contents alone I learned that in our world there is, quite simply, a plethora of waxes. I prepared a fresh cup of tea. I began to read.

Chapter 1: Introductory. Short, understandable, etymology:
Wax is as old as man. The English term wax is derived from the Anglo-Saxon weax, which was the name applied to the natural material of the honeycomb of the bee. When a material of similar resemblance was found in plants it also became known as weax or wachs, and later wax.
Chapter 2: Chemical Components of Waxes. Not so easy. My gears stalled, my brakes screeched. Josie, my dog, curled snuggly by my side, looked up. I appreciated his concern. By page four of my new exciting old book my eyes have been crossed by a single sentence:
The CHOH grouping known as hydroxymethylene is a tautomer of CH2O.
So I pause, stare into the fire, scratch Josie’s head. He goes back to sleep. Maybe I could just skip this part. The chemistry of it all. Even though, well, in a way, this is all about chemistry. Negative ions, chemistry, the chemistry of the thing, the chemistry of everything, that’s why I’m here, right? To figure it out? To figure something out. Well. The next page was full of equations. I skipped ahead.

Chapter 3: The Natural Waxes. Aha! Here it is. Exactly what I’ve been admiring about beeswax for years.

… so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Determining and Evaluating the Emissions of PCDD/PCDF, PAH and Short-Chain Aldehydes in Combustion Gases of Candles
Beeswax: Production, Properties, Composition, Control
The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes

This page edited 1/16/19.

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