Friday, October 26, 2012

Fork handles? No, four candles...!

By Mike Rendell

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.


  1. Another great post! So pleased William Fortnum (what an enterprising chap!) sold on those half-used candles. Otherwise, what a waste! A form of early recycling. Thanks for sharing!

  2. So interesting! Thanks for that - who would have thought that the great Fortnum and Mason grew from such humble beginnings!

  3. Well you would certainly need to have quite some business acumen to make a go of a business through all of life's vicissitudes over three centuries! Yes, interesting to see such humble beginnings. Next time I am there I will ask if they have any half-used candles going cheap...

  4. Great post, Mike! I, too found the Fortnum and Mason connection interesting. I'm guessing they don't have cheap candles as I was just there and they wanted upward of 50 pounds for Christmas crackers. :)

  5. Very interesting - I guess those rush lights would have been as smelly as the tallow candles, what with being dipped in leftover fats... Sometimes we forget what a luxury it is to flick a switch and have light :)

  6. I imagine you got de-sensitized to the smell - to our noses it would be vile!I suspect the rushlights were used for basic lighting in dark corners rather than as an illumination for reading.Mind you, the gentle light given off by candles can be lovely as a change from the all-pervading modern electric light - something we are well aware of here in Spain, where I live, as we are forever getting power cuts!

    1. Yes, Mike, it is lovely for awhile, but reading by candlelight strains the eyes. I'm sure you are very pleased when the lights finally come back on. :D

      On another note, as you stated candles must have been expensive, and didn't last very long. Did you run across any journal entries on oil lamps? Their cost? Their lighting to read or write by? Thanks.

  7. As far as I can see my ancestor never owned or used oil lamps and there is no reference to them in his jottings.In the 18th century such lamps as there were were hardly improved from Roman times.It was only in 1784 that the Frenchman Argand added a glass chimney to the central draught lamp, and 1792 before William Murdoch began experimenting with gas lighting. The kerosene lamp didn't come into use until 1853, so for general household use candles were the only real alternative to natural lighting for most of the Georgian period. For that reason "early to bed...." was the best maxim to live by!


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