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A brief history of scented candles

The rise and rise in popularity of scented candles in recent times is no accident. Their ability to transform the feel of a space, both from an olfactory and visual perspective, are nothing short of remarkable.

Scented candles are also unrivalled as the most versatile gifting option for just about any occasion. However, the first candles were crude and functional by today’s standards.

Man's handing lighting a candle in the dark

The original candle-making process was all about dipping a wick into a molten wax or oil. Dipped tallow candles were common in the time of the Roman empire. Over time, different civilisations would develop their own methods, yet, their main original purpose remained the same: to provide a convenient, reliable source of light for homes and places of worship.

Monks praying while holding a candle together

It is remarkable how many different types of oil and wax were in use in different cultures over the centuries. Every country or specific region found a practical, plentiful source with which to make reliable candles. Animal fats were a useful by-product at this time with records showing that some cultures used tallow while others used whale fat. The indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest were known to use the oil from the eulachon fish. Their candle making process consisted of simply drying the fish, putting it on a stick and lighting it. Understandably, the species is now also known as the candlefish.

By the Middle Ages, candle making had become a common profession.

Red candles burning at Christmas time

‘Chandlers’, as they were better known, could create large numbers of candles from tallow. It was a thankless task in some respects because of the horrible smell of the manufacturing process. Yet, they were able to make a good living selling these candles to residents and other shopkeepers. In the 13th century, the profession even became a guild craft in England and France. France would later create the first candle mould in the 15th century.

Moulds would go on to change the profession significantly from thereon.

 Multiple candles burning

Pouring molten wax and oil into moulds saved time and allowed for a more uniform batch of candles. By the 18th century, these moulds became common and chandlers began experimenting with different types of oil and wax. Some turned to spermaceti from sperm whales because there were less odour and stronger light. The French progressed onto Colza oil because of the reduced costs and the smokeless flames. 

This is where we see the development of candles as a commercial product rather than just a practical tool. Manufacturers had options available to them that allowed them to experiment with processes and ingredients. Doing so could allow for a more consumer-friendly product, such as those candles with better flames and odours. The right mould and wax could also decrease operational costs, increase the output and generate more sales. With more and more chandlers on the scene, and greater trade routes between regions, competition would have intensified to make the most desirable candle possible.

The next logical progression was industrialisation.

 Candles burning in a night setting

Today, we like to find candles that are hand-made with love and care. In the 19th century, it was a different story. Mass production was the key to success and this was perfected in Manchester, England in 1834. Joseph Morgan’s machines could produce 1,500 candles in an hour. It was also around this time that the self-trimming wick was developed to improve the performance of the candle.

In the 20th century, the functionality of the candle changed.

Woman being massaged with candles burning

Now that most modern homes in the developing world had electricity, candlelight wasn’t so practical or necessary. Yet, candles remained popular because of their aesthetic qualities. Consumers could buy candles in different shapes and colours to provide a softer, natural light. They also became part of interior design schemes even when they weren’t lit. This meant candles that we bigger, bolder, more colourful and often created with botanical elements in the wax.

A shift in focus on the purpose of the candle allowed for a rise in scented candles. Scented candles are still a popular choice for many consumers across different generations. The range of scents lets us create a specific atmosphere in our home, such as spicy, autumnal scents or fragrances associated with the holidays. They can also trigger great sense memories when they smell like baked cookies, a summer breeze or other pleasant scenarios. This also means that the candles are a great tool for aromatherapy. They can relieve stress and help us relax.

Today, consumers often show a preference for a more natural form of a candle.

Couple holding candles

Waxes from more natural sources, simple paper or cotton wicks and natural fragrances have become popular. Some natural scented candles may not be as bright and bold in scent throw, but they remain soothing, authentic and beautiful.

This love of modern natural candles has also rise to a resurgence in beeswax candles. Beeswax candles have been in use since at least the Jin Dynasty. They can be moulded into incredible shapes and claim to help to purify the air. Many people prefer these candles because of the way they burn and their pleasant odour. In the Middle Ages, these candles became a luxury item because they were expensive to make and were often reserved for use in religious and royal ceremonies. Today they are still a pricier option because of the costs of caring for the bees that create the material.

The future popularity of candles, whether practical or scented candles, will never be in doubt. They will always remain a safe choice of gift for any occasion, and an effective way to alleviate the stress of our fast paced western society. Be sure to explore the range of Kate Hill luxury scented candles for a truly unique floral experience. 

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