After a decades-long hiatus, candlemaking as a trade has returned to the Revolutionary City. Chandlers, as they are known, are hand-dipping candles and you can join in on the fun.
While some thought candlemaking may not have taken place in Williamsburg in the 18th century, Joe Beatty, Director of Historical Research and Training, says evidence was found in the Virginia Gazette:
“We see evidence in the Virginia Gazette, account books, and tax records of a candle maker in Williamsburg from the mid-1770s through the mid-1780s. This man, named Morto Brien, advertised in July 1776 that ‘he has erected a Manufactory of SOAP and CANDLES in this City, and intends carrying on the Business in the best Manner.’ Mr. Brien (sometimes Bryan) moved to Williamsburg from Norfolk and appears to have continued his candle making business at least through the end of Revolution, if not longer.”
Tom Redd, a Materials Analyst for the Foundation, is heading up the newest (old) trade. You can find the team behind the Joiner Shop. The chandlers are hard at work making candles from three different materials—tallow, beeswax, and bayberry wax, with beeswax and bayberry wax being the two used the most. Tallow (rendered beef, sheep, deer, or bear fat—with beef tallow being more common in Virginia) candles were the cheapest to purchase but wouldn’t last as long as beeswax or bayberry. Tom gave me this great scenario on burn times for the candles:
“Let us imagine we have four candles, and each one is about three-quarters of an inch in diameter and they are all about 10 inches long. They are in a room where the air is still. A candle well-made of the best tallow might burn two hours. A bayberry candle might last eight, while a beeswax candle may burn for 10 hours. The finest candle, imported from New England, would have been made of spermaceti wax. Spermaceti is taken from the head of the sperm whale. The spermaceti candle might last 12 hours or more, and burn with a brighter light.”
When I visited the shop, the chandlers were using beeswax and hand-dipping dozens of candles with a piece of equipment made especially for them by the joiners. Each arm on the “tree” can hold about 50 wicks for dipping, so chandlers aren’t hand-dipping candles one-by-one. This method takes about an hour to complete, with each candle needing anywhere between 50 to 55 dips in the hot wax.
To make candles, chandlers begin by accumulating wax and placing it on a pot. As the wax melts, chandlers set up the rest of the production. Once melted, they begin to dip the wicks into the hot wax. You don’t want the wax to be too hot or too cold—it has to be at a Goldilocks state—so the fire is monitored. The chandlers take one arm at a time over to the pot of melted wax and dip it in up to a certain height of the wick. The arm is placed back on the tree and another chandler takes an arm to the pot. As the layer of wax begins to cool, the chandlers work to make each wick straight. This has the be done in the beginning stages as the candles are more pliable. In turn, each arm is dipped into the wax and after 50 to 55 dips, a completed candle is made. Chandlers then work to make the candles a bit more uniform and they are ready for sale.
Fun fact: Chandlers won’t be able to make candles if the weather isn’t just right, either. It can’t be too windy or rainy. Don’t be discouraged if you come by for a visit and they aren’t making candles; they will teach you everything you need to know about candlemaking and some incredible nuggets of history. They have lots of materials on site to show you as well.
Now, with that said, candles were purchased by the majority of people in the 18th century, but they weren’t necessarily seen as something to be used all of the time. Most went to bed as the sun set and woke up with the sunrise in an effort to utilize as much natural light as possible. Have you ever tried to read by candlelight? It’s not my favorite thing to do because the light isn’t very bright.
Here’s how you can get involved. Guests are invited to dip their own candles with the chandlers and you’ll be able to take home one of your creations. All you need is a special ticket. For more information, click here.
And be sure to like the Historic Trades and Skills Facebook page to keep up with all the fun the chandlers are having. Happy candle-making!
Thank you to Colonial Williamsburg Photographer Darnell Vennie for taking these great photographs!