My ancestor Richard Hall, living in the second part of the Eighteenth Century, had access to four different forms of candle – beeswax, tallow, spermaceti and rush-light. At a time when the world was either dark or it was light, choosing the correct candle would have been very important. Candles formed a significant part of Richard’s budget since his accounts show that in 1797 he was spending £4.8.04 p.a. on candles (roughly equivalent to £250) as against more than double that amount for coal. (£10.17.00).
By far the best and most expensive candles were made from beeswax – they would burn with an even, sweet-smelling light but they were a luxury. As an aside, the prestigious store of Fortnum & Mason has its origins in the sale of beeswax candles. The Royal Family insisted on new candles being used every night, which meant that there was a constant supply of half-used candles which were left to the footman (one William Fortnum) to dispose of. William's landlord was Hugh Mason. Together they decided to go into partnership selling on these part-used candles along with general groceries. 300 years later the firm is still going strong!
Back in the Georgian era tallow candles were made from suet (animal fat from beef or mutton usually) and these had the disadvantage of spitting and spluttering as well as smelling pretty foul. They had the added drawback of being soft, particularly in the heat of the summer, meaning that the stems would bend and become useless.
Spermaceti was certainly used by Richard in the 1790s because he specifically mentions it in his shopping order of 21st January 1791 where he bought 2 ounces of the stuff (see penultimate line).
Rushlight holder courtesy of Cerediggion Museum in Wales.
Other holders were more like a conventional table-mounted candle holder. Either way they would burn for perhaps 40 minutes before needing to be replaced.They would have given off a dim and often fluctuating light.