Today, when we think of candles, our first thought tends to turn toward the aesthetic experience we have today, in the 21st century.
Candles provide ambiance, lighting a room with a dancing light that no electric bulb can replicate. Candlelight is romantic to us because that glowing flicker resonates with us somewhere down deep. It seems to resemble our heartbeat, our passion, our soul.
We humans have a somewhat inexplicable connection to the simple, purity of firelight. It’s a metaphor for our stirring soul, but it’s also part of our history, and once was an intrinsic aspect of our survival.
In addition, our sense of smell awakens memories of our past, setting a mood that can’t be duplicated without reliving those memories. It’s no wonder that the popularity of scented candles continues to take the world by storm.
Candles Through The Years
Until about 100 years ago, candles and lamps were the main source of lighting for all of human civilization. Imagine: Today, you see the night skyline of a city like New York, and it’s recognizable thanks to electric lighting. As late as the turn of the twentieth century, that skyline would have flickered with a very different glow, lit by gas, oil, and wax.
Candles have been documented in human civilization as far back as nearly 5,000 years ago in the Egyptian Empire. It’s the wick that makes a candle a candle. Prior to the wick, oil lamps were used, in which the oil was burned directly. Solid-fuel candles (like beeswax, or other fatty waxes) were much more efficient for transport, and as a technology, became the primary light source for the Roman Empire.
Of course, the history of candles is not exclusive to western civilization. According to the National Candle Association, “Historians have found evidence that many other early civilizations developed wicked candles using waxes made from available plants and insects. Early Chinese candles are said to have been molded in paper tubes, using rolled rice paper for the wick, and wax from an indigenous insect that was combined with seeds. In Japan, candles were made of wax extracted from tree nuts, while in India, candle wax was made by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree.”
Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwestern Americas actually burned the eulachon fish (also known as a candlefish). When dried, you can actually light the tail of the fish, and because of its high fat content, it burns evenly, just like a candle.
Over the centuries, candles have seen many interesting iterations, but became relatively standardized during the colonial period of the 16th and 17th Centuries. The primary fuel during this period was beeswax or animal fats. In the 18th Century, whale fat became the primary source of lighting.
In the mid 19th century, the industrial uses for petroleum became apparent. By the 1850’s, it was discovered that the waxy byproduct of petroleum, called paraffin, could be used for making candles. Paraffin was a game changer. It was cheap to produce, and held its shape in warm weather better than beeswax. Not to mention that at the time it was introduced, oil was seen as a limitless commodity. By the dawn of the 20th century, the majority of candles were paraffin-based.
Soy Wax: The Latest Candle Technology
It wasn’t until the late 20th Century that paraffin’s day came. Research has found that as paraffin burns, it emits fumes that are nearly as dangerous as diesel fuel exhaust. And in the early years of the 21st Century, it has become evident that oil is not in limitless supply, making it a very tenuous commodity.
In the mid 1990’s, soy wax was introduced as a safer alternative to paraffin. Initially, soy wax was seen as a niche alternative to paraffin. However, in recent years, consumers have begun to turn to soy for its health benefits: as a clean burning candle, it doesn’t add the dangerous chemicals to the home as it burns that paraffin does.
Soy burns clean, without the chemical byproducts of petroleum
As a plant-based product, soy is renewable, whereas paraffin is not
Soy is a ubiquitous crop in the United States, and soy wax can be developed cheaply
The new soy wax was picked up at the end of the nineties by boutique candle makers and soon after by major corporations like Cargill and S. C. Johnson & Son. Soy very quickly emerged as a strong competitor to paraffin.
The Future of Candles
The hydrogenation of soy oil into wax is the latest technological innovation in candles that has enabled them to be safer, healthier, and more ecologically sound than ever before. But this is not the end of candle history.
Because of the way candles stir our souls, whether it’s their soft light filling a room, or the enticing scent of essential oils, humans are drawn to the comfort that candles bring to our lives, and it is even more comforting to know that the joy we experience comes in a safe and healthy product.
In fact, we expect that the candle experience will continue to evolve with human civilization, just like many of the technologies around us. Even today, we are able to use wickless soy candles that can provide the aromatic ambiance of a traditional candle without the concern of an open flame. Fragrance melts use electric heat rather than a flame to melt the wax and disperse the fragrance into the air, which allows more control and peace of mind when setting the ambiance in a room.
As we look to the future of soy candle technology, we are optimistic. It would be surprising if the candle were to ever disappear from use; however, as humans adapt to a remarkably changing world, we’ll find that the spaces in which we dwell will continue to change: urban overcrowding, driverless cars, climate change.
How will we adapt? In what ways will we open these spaces to our spirits? Soy wax has helped bring candles to a healthier, more sustainable place in our world while still allowing us to nurture our souls. How these technologies will adapt in the future, remains to be seen, but soy has proven to be such an adaptable resource, we are betting that it will be the primary medium for the future of candles.