By Vicki Betts
*Appeared in The Citizens' Companion, vol. 6,
no. 6 (February-March 2000): 28-30.
As the blockade tightened around the Confederacy in 1861, many Southern
homemakers faced a future without Proctor and Gamble's well-known store-bought
Star candles. What could be done?
One answer was the "Model Economical Candle" or
"Confederate Candle," a very long wick, dipped in a mixture of hot
beeswax and rosin, and wrapped around a bottle or corncob, or around itself.
The origins of the design date back much earlier than the United States Civil War. The concept is illustrated in Pluche's Spectacle de la Nature; or Nature Display'd (1748) as "The Working of Wax into Rolls." One operator turned a large reel, unwinding a wick which passed across a shallow heated pan of melted wax. The other operator then wound the coated wick, or taper, onto his reel. Desk top taper holders, usually made of brass or occasionally wrought iron, held a roll of the coated wick on an ornate base, and supported one end several inches higher either in a scissor-type grip or in a tube. An example may be seen at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. During this period and later, tapers were often used to heat sealing wax. Short lengths of tapers were nothing new to Texas in 1861, when the Dallas Herald related a joke, repeated in the Austin State Gazette, in which a doctor stole a bundle of tapers from a "very economical lady," mistaking them for sarsaparilla roots until they dissolved when he attempted to boil them.
After the war started, accounts of these renamed "Confederate Candles" appeared in the Vicksburg Whig (quoted in the Dallas Herald and then picked up by the Austin State Gazette), the Natchez Courier, and the Charleston Mercury, all in 1861 and 1862. The Natchez/Vicksburg description (one pound beeswax to a quarter pound of rosin on 30-40 yards of wick) was reprinted in Francis Porcher's Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests (1863). The Charleston account (one pound beeswax to three-quarter pounds of rosin on 60 yards of wick) was reprinted in Confederate Receipt Book, published in Richmond, also in 1863.
In 1888 Fannie Beers recalled her own experience with "Confederate candles," made entirely of the wax of bees who were "Southern sympathizers." The wicks were "yards of rags torn into strips and sewn together, then twisted to the size of lamp-wicks" which were "dipped into the liquid wax, cooled, and dipped again and again until of the right size. These yards of waxed rags were wound around a corncob or a bottle, then clipped, leaving about two yards 'closely wound' to each candle. One end was left loose to light. . . ." Parthenia Hague's candles consisted of "several strands of spun thread twisted together to form a wick two or three yards long [which] were well steeped in beeswax and tallow" then wrapped around a bottle." "When ready for lighting, one or more of the coils of thread would be loosed from the bottle, raised above the mouth an inch or so, and pressed with the thumb to the neck of the bottle. When the wick had burned to the bottle's mouth, the same process of uncoiling and pressing the wick to the bottle would be repeated."
The most detailed account is found in the letter of Clara Dunlap, of Ouachita County, Arkansas, to her sister Cornelia Dickson, in Autauga County, Alabama, dated July 27, 1861, and published in Sisters, Seeds & Cedars: Rediscovering Nineteenth-Century Life Through Correspondence from Rural Arkansas and Alabama. Their brother John suggested that Clara describe the process as "take a long str[ing] pour some wax around it; coil it up like a snake, & stick fire to one end of it." Fortunately, she decided to included much more meticulous directions which form the basis of the instructions that follow.
The results of all of the effort, however, were not entirely satisfactory. The candles burned rapidly, and someone needed to keep an eye on them, continually extending the wick above the roll to keep the entire mass from going up in a flash. Some called them "miserable," but Elizabeth Massey in her Ersatz in the Confederacy stated they were "given as Christmas gifts and were recognized as 'a labor of love.'"
Original Confederate candles survive in several Southern museums. Photographs of those at the Museum of the Confederacy have been printed in Massey's Ersatz and in A Woman's War. Others may be seen at the North Carolina Museum of History at Raleigh and at the Old Capitol Museum of Mississippi History in Jackson.
Austin State Gazette, December 28, 1861, p. 3, c. 2.
Beers, Fannie A. Memories: A Record of Personal Experience and Adventure During Four Years of War. Philadelphia: Press of J. B. Lippincott Company, 1888. Reprint ed. N. p.: Time-Life Books, 1981.
Charleston Mercury, November 19, 1862, p. 1, c. 2.
Confederate Receipt Book: Compilation of Over One Hundred Receipts Adapted to the Times. Richmond: West & Johnston, 1863. Reprint ed. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1960.
Campbell, Edward D. C., Jr. and Kym S. Rice, eds. A Woman's War: Southern Women, Civil War, and the Confederate Legacy. Richmond: The Museum of the Confederacy and Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.
Fountain, Sarah M., ed. Sisters, Seeds & Cedars: Rediscovering Nineteenth-Century Life Through Correspondence from Rural Arkansas and Alabama. Conway, AR: University of Central Arkansas, 1995.
Hague, Parthenia Antoinette. A Blockaded Family: Life in Southern Alabama During the Civil War. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1888. Reprint ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Massey, Elizabeth. Ersatz in the Confederacy: Shortages and Substitutions on the Confederate Homefront. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1952, 1993.
Natchez Courier, November 8, 1861, p. 1, c. 3.
Pluche, Noel Antoine. Spectacle de la Nature; or, Nature Display'd . . . London: J. and J. Pemberton, 1748.
Porcher, Francis Peyre. Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests: Medical, Economical, and Agricultural, Being also a Medical Botany of the Confederate States. Charleston: Evans & Cogswell, 1863. Reprint ed. New York: Arno Press, 1970.
Flickering Flames: A
History of Domestic Lighting Through the Ages.
Rutland, VT: Charles E.
Tuttle Co., 1959.
1) Photo—The "Model Economical Candle." The finished product. Photograph by Vicki Betts.
Photo—Vicki Betts portrays a Confederate refugee as she leads two other
volunteers in the preparation of a homemade candle.
She holds the wick down in a pan of melted wax.
When the string is coated three or four times, she will wrap it around a
corncob and it will be ready for use. The
demonstration was part of the civilian program at the reenactment of the Battle
of Chickamauga in northern Georgia in September, 1999.
Photo by Julia C. Zangroniz—Courtesy of Zangroniz Photography.
Source of materials omitted because dated.
To make 7-9 Confederate candles wrapped around corncobs (one standard sized skillet of wax), you will need:
2 lbs. beeswax
½ lb. pine rosin
30-36 yards 100% cotton yarn (not even part polyester)
7-9 corncobs, about 6" long (break off tip)
3" x 3" squares of approximately ¼" thick wood, not plywood—a wood shingle is ideal
Small square-headed nails if available
A fire, at one end of a rectangular fire pit
A fire shovel for coals
Two trivets, or a trivet and a grate
A hot pad
One or two sticks, about 2 feet long, with a fork at the end, the branches being no more than ½" long
At least two people—three is better
Room enough to extend a full wick on either side of the cooling trivet
About four hours and a lot of patience
Optional—a table of raw ingredients, finished examples, and instruction handouts if this is a demonstration for the public or other reenactors
Disclaimer! This can
be a very messy operation and is not recommended for younger children because of
the fire, hot wax, and the necessity of sometimes handling the coated wick while
it may still be quite warm.
1. Weigh out the beeswax and pine rosin. Place these ingredients into period bowls or wrap in cloth. Roll the yarn into a ball. Drive a nail through the center of each square base of wood. Break the tips off of the corncobs and press one end of a corncob onto the nail to make the foundation for a candle.
2. On site dig a rectangular fire pit and start a fire at one end of it. Move the hot coals to the other end of the fire pit and put a grate or trivet over them. Place the second trivet on the ground adjacent to the fire pit, but not in a pathway. Make sure that there is sufficient space on both sides of the trivet to handle the fully extended wick.
3. Put the beeswax and rosin together in the skillet and put the skillet on the grate or trivet over the coals. Stir carefully with a stick or a metal spoon—a wooden spoon will be difficult to clean later.
4. Remove the skillet with the wax mixture to the other (cooling) trivet. Keep a careful eye on it so that no spectator gets burned accidentally. When a light colored rim of solidifying wax appears around the edge of the pan, it is ready for dripping.
5. Cut lengths of cotton yarn about 56" long if you are working alone (fingertip to fingertip), 112" if there are two people, and longer if there are three. One person should take each end of the wick. At about 2-3" from one end, start sliding the wick through the wax mixture horizontally. The forked sticks will be useful for making sure the wick goes down into the wax—ideally one person has each end of the wick and the third person is using the forked stick to keep the wick in the wax. If there are only two people, each will have a stick to hold down her half of the wick. If possible, try to avoid scraping the coated wick against the edge of the skillet.
6. When the wick is coated, hold it up to cool for a minute or two, then slide through three or four more times. Existing candles in museums have a diameter about the size of a pencil—some accounts say the diameter of a little finger. The more horizontally straight you can keep the wick, the less it will segment and the prettier candle you will produce. The wax in the skillet will continue to harden until a scum starts to form across the top—avoid that or you will have lumpy candles that require smoothing to look good. You will probably only get one candle out of each heating of the wax.
7. When you have the candle the desired size, and while it is still slightly warm to the touch but not sticky, start closely wrapping it around the upper end of the corncob, continue wrapping to the base, then start back up. You may have to do a little smoothing to make a pretty candle. If you want a larger candle, attach a second wick to where the first ended. When finished, take one end of the wick and turn it up to extend an inch or two above the corncob—that it the end that you will light.
8. Place the skillet back over the coals to remelt the wax and repeat the process for additional candles.
9. After about six or seven single-wick candles it will become difficult to dip additional wicks into the wax because of the low wax level. Save the remaining mixture for a future date by pouring it into a container from which it can be removed later without too much trouble. The skillet can be cleaned by wiping it with a paper or cloth towel while it is still warm and/or by boiling water in it.
10. These candles burn well with a two inch flame, at a rate of about an inch every ten minutes, depending on the diameter of the waxed wick. They do not produce a scent and they seldom drip, but they do give off a black smoke, probably from the pine rosin. Consider holding a mirror or a piece of glass above the flame to collect lampblack (carbon), used for making ink and bootblack in the Confederate South.
11. Confederate candles make a great conversation piece and can lead into discussions about the effect of the blockade on the South and the resulting substitutions—many based on earlier, pre-industrial or frontier methods.