Hammond-Harwood House is beautifully decorated for the holiday season with stunning floral arrangements from the Federated Garden Clubs, swags and wreaths created by our volunteers, and candles that light the rooms of the house as well as the street-side exterior windows. The candles add a lovely feeling to the house and candles in windows have always been considered a sign of welcome to others, no matter what the season. Writer Ray Boas dates the tradition of lighting candles in the windows of homes during the Christmas season to Colonial times, as it is thought the practice was brought to America by the Irish. We have placed candles in our windows for the holiday season, but for safety and conservation reasons, the Hammond-Harwood House uses LED candles. They make a reasonably good substitute for the real thing. As I was turning them on a few days ago, it made me reflect on the complexity of light sources for early homes such as ours that relied on candlelight by way of candle-wood, pine torches, tallow, beeswax, bayberry or whale oil.
Light sources were a consideration for every household since candles of any variety were expensive. Colonists were seeking just enough light for the task at hand—not to light an entire room. Lighting an entire room would have been reserved for the wealthy. Each form of candle-making had its advantages and disadvantages. Wood tar or resin from pine trees, referred to as candle-wood, was used by the early colonists, as well as pine knots, a practice learned from the Native Americans. Fat pitch pine (often referred to as fatwood–still often used for lighting fireplaces and woodstoves) was often preferred over candlelight because of the intensity and long-burning qualities.
Tallow candles, made from animal fat, were the least expensive, but they burn quickly, melt in warm temperatures, are prone to attracting rodents, and have an unpleasant odor. I had to laugh while researching the history of candle-making because one source described “the smell of the manufacturing process… so unpleasant that it was banned by ordinance in some European cities.”
Beeswax candles have a long history dating as far back as the early Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). It produced the most pleasant and long burning light, but the availability and expense of the wax limited its use to the church and upper classes, and for the colonists, beeswax candles would have been imported. This is where the bayberry candle was welcomed. The wax obtained from boiling bayberries had many benefits: it provided good light, remained stable in summer months, gave off little smoke, and the resulting candles longer lasting than other kinds of candles. Several varieties of bayberry grew from New England to Florida, but a reality check is needed. 15 lbs. of bayberries (1½ quarts of bayberries) boiled down to simply 1 lb. of bayberry wax. This was only enough wax for one small candle. Because bayberry candles were long-burning, they were often used at Christmas and New Year’s. The legend of the bayberry candle says that “A bayberry candle burnt to the socket brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket.”
Besides the quality of the wax, the quality of the wick was another factor. Wicks were usually made of cotton or spun hemp strands that were loosely twisted together. They burned poorly and needed constant maintenance to keep lit, but by the 19th century, new technology for wicks, which were braided and tightly plaited, enabled the wick to work more efficiently and added to the longevity of the candle’s use. Who knew that candle making could have so many variants for success?
Housewives and chandlers of the past, along with today’s modern artisans and commercial manufacturers who create candles, understand the criteria that are needed to produce a candle that is radiant, long-lasting, and pleasing to the nose. Consider the deliberation with which candles were used by our early forebears and the luxury we have in just lighting a candle with a match–or in our case—with the remote control.
We wish you happy holidays and best wishes for the New Year!
Lucinda Dukes Edinberg
Curator, Hammond-Harwood House
Boas, Ray. “Candles in the Window-the History Behind,” The Walpole Clarion, New Hampshire. 1 December 2019, https://thewalpoleclarion.com/2019/12/01/candles-in-the-window-the-history-behind/. Accessed 20 December 2022.
Christian, Ellen. “Christmas and New Year’s Candle Tradition,” Herbein’s Garden Center. https://herbeins.com/uncategorized/history-of-bayberry-candles/. Accessed 20 December 2022.
Schenawolf, Harry. “Lighting Colonial Homes – Candles & Much More,” Revolutionary War Journal.com. 22 December 2018, https://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/lighting-colonial-homes-candles-much-more/. Accessed 20 December 2022.