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The Candle Manufactory

As thousands of students and teachers begin the classes of a new school year today (at least here in the South, at least many of the private, Christian schools), a passing comment that my pastor made in his Sunday sermon set me to thinking. He referred to the Christian school as “a candle factory.” And my mind, attuned as it is to historical topics, immediately returned to the “good old days” of colonial times when the only source of light was homemade candles. At first, I thought it ironic that he should use colonial candle making and the word factory together, but I later took some time to do a little research on the candle-making process and realized that the term is, indeed, appropriate.

Colonial-era families did not generally have ready access to commercially made candles. Oh, they could order some from Europe–if they were wealthy enough–but most colonists weren’t wealthy, so they had to “make do,” making their own candles on-site. They usually did that in the fall, simultaneously with the annual slaughter of animals because candles were most often made from rendered animal fat. (Some people made candles from bayberries or beeswax, but they were much more expensive because the raw materials were not as readily available.) Making candles from fat was a rigorous, time-consuming task. And since the average home needed an estimated 400 or so candles for the year, it was quite a large operation; the colonial homestead, in fact, became a factory for a time.

First, chunks of animal fat were cut into small pieces and placed into a large pot over a roaring fire to be melted. Small pieces of fat melted faster than large pieces. (A mixture of half sheep fat and half beef fat usually was used, but hog fat was sometimes used, although it produced candles that smoked badly and stank to high heaven.) The liquefied fat, called tallow, was first skimmed and then poured through a fine sieve to remove any impurities.

Next, the wicks, which were made of two or three strands of twisted cotton, were strung from straight sticks called broches and dipped into the hot tallow two or three times and then set aside on a rack to drain until the tallow had hardened. They were dipped again, and again set aside to harden. Each time, the candle-to-be became larger and larger. This process was repeated several times–as often as it took to get candles of the desired size. The bigger the candle desired, the more dippings were necessary. The last time they were dipped and drained, the candles were “necked,” immersed deeper into the tallow, beyond the depth of all previous dippings, until all the previously hardened tallow was covered.

Before the candles could be used, however, their bottoms were passed over a hot metal plate to melt them flat so they would sit upright on a candlestick. The wick was then cut to the desired length, and the finished candles were stored in a cool place to await use.

Some people, called chandlers, made their living making candles. Many of them were like itinerant factories, traveling from place to place and making and selling their wares. A few set up permanent factories. Many families, however, continued to make their own candles, but they often built molds to make the whole process go faster and to ensure uniformity of size and shape for their candles.

Now if you’re still with me, you might be wondering what this process has to do with the beginning of school. Remember, my pastor had commented that the Christian school was a candle factory. Following that analogy, we readily see that in each grade, the children (our candles-in-process) are “dipped” into the “tallow” of their studies, be it reading, math, science, history, Bible, foreign languages, or whatever. Each year, they grow a bit larger in their knowledge and ability. Finally, upon completion of their senior year, they are ready to “commence” the thing for which they have been so painstakingly made: to be lights in the darkness.

In Matthew 5:14, Christ said, “Ye are the light of the world.” He went on to say that people don’t light a candle or lamp to hide it under an obstruction or shade (He used the word bushel). Rather, He commanded, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (v. 16).

Christian education is in the business of making candles that will shine God’s light into this dark world. Our prayer should be that our schools are able to do that task thoroughly and well, approaching each grade level with the understanding that it is only one step in the process toward achieving that ultimate goal, so that we graduate students who are ready, willing, and able to let their light shine. This process is a difficult, time-consuming, and often thankless job, so be sure to pray for not only the students but also the teachers as they perform their great service. And, as the saying goes, “If you can read this, thank a teacher!”

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

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