Thursday, September 28, 2023

Candlemaking Returns to Colonial Williamsburg

The rotating candles tree allows the chandlers to make dozens of candles at a time. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
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After a 30-year disappearance from the historic area, candlemaking returned to Colonial Williamsburg’s trade shop lineup last month.

The chandler – the name used for a candle maker in colonial times – was a staple of colonial life, and now guests at Colonial Williamsburg will once again have a chance to try their hands at the craft.

John King is one of five chandlers currently working at the new candlemaking site, located in the courtyard of the Joiner Shop on Duke of Gloucester Street. Since the site opened three weeks ago, King has had several guests stop by and express their excitement about the return of candlemaking to Colonial Williamsburg.

“We have so many guests that are lifelong visitors who remember when we used to have a candlemaker,” King said. “We had a lady our first week come by and say ‘I still have my candle that I made here as a little girl 35 years ago.’”

Colonial Williamsburg had discontinued its candlemaking operation by 1985, but the current administration saw an opportunity to reinstate it this year as part of a larger effort to increase hands-on, interactive experiences for guests, King said.

Though guests have only been able to watch the chandlers at their work so far, visitors will be able to buy an additional ticket to make a candle for themselves, which they will be able to take home with them, starting Sunday.

The chandlers use two different methods to make candles, both of which are authentic to how things would have been done in colonial times. Smaller batches of candles can be made by pouring liquid wax into metal molds, but the method guests will use involves repeatedly dipping a dangling candle wick into a pot of wax.

The mold method produces more uniform, polished-looking candles, but the dipping method is faster and allows many more candles to be made at once – up to 400 at a time, versus 32 in the molds.

The dipping method is also more interactive. A standard taper candle takes 55 to 60 dips, King estimates, and between each dip the candlemaker must smooth and shape the wax as it dries.

The pauses between dips also present an opportunity for the chandlers to educate visitors about the role of candles in colonial times.

King likes to start by talking to guests about the two simple materials that make up candles: wax and wicks.

Honeybees were introduced to the colony around 1616, and by the mid 1700s it was common for colonists to keep bees for the benefit of both their honey and wax.

Beeswax candles were preferable to tallow candles, which were made of a waxy animal fat, because they burned cleaner and brighter while putting off less smoke, King said.

Colonists had two other sources for wax: bayberries and spermaceti. The former is a seasonal fruit usually harvested in the early winter, while the latter is a waxy substance found in the head cavities of sperm whales.

Though bayberry candles were often burned during the holidays and thought to bring health, wealth and prosperity, King estimates it would have taken about 10 pounds of berries to make one pound of wax, making them a time-consuming and inefficient source of wax.

Spermaceti candles burn longer, brighter and cleaner than all of the alternatives, King said, but they had to be imported and were significantly more expensive.

Colonial Williamsburg’s chandlers are currently working exclusively with beeswax, but King said they are open to the possibility of interpreting with other types of wax in the future.

As for the candlewick, colonists would have created these by spinning together flax and linen on a spinning wheel. Colonial candlewicks differ significantly from their modern counterparts in that they do not burn away as the flame moves down the candle, King said.

From the wax to the wick, the materials used by Colonial Williamsburg’s chandler are authentic to the time period.

King believes a candle is more than just the sum of its parts. He emphasizes to guests that colonial candles are much more analogous to modern-day light bulbs than to the candles visitors to the Historic Triangle might pick up if they venture over to Yankee Candle’s flagship store on Richmond Road.

“If [colonial people] could come back from the past and know we spend 30 dollars for a candle just because it smells like cookies, they’d think we have more money than sense,” King said to a group of guests with a laugh.

He likens candles to the light bulbs of today because of their ubiquitous nature and simple dedication to performing one basic function: creating light.

“You don’t really think much about your light bulbs until they burn out, they’re just sort of there,” King said, emphasizing colonial candles were not usually fragrant, colorful or decorative.

An average size beeswax taper candle would have burned for two to three hours, King said, and most families would have gone through one a night.

Though candles were available for purchase at the local general store or apothecary, many families would have opted to save money and make their own. This simple craft would have been a frequent chore for the children of the household, which King believes makes it a great experience for Colonial Williamsburg visitors of all ages.

“Somebody can tell me something, but until I actually go through the motions and do it myself, I’m not going to remember it as well,” King said. “We’re making lasting memories and family traditions. Every one of the trade shops has an item the guests can pick up and handle because that’s really big to Colonial Williamsburg.”

Access to the candlemaker is included in Colonial Williamsburg admission. Colonial Williamsburg admission and an additional ticket is required for the hands-on experience, which begins Sunday and will continue daily, weather permitting, through Sept. 6.

Tickets for the hands-on experience are $15 for adults, $10 for ages 12 and under, $13 for Colonial Williamsburg hotel guests and $8 for Annual Pass Members.

In addition to making and handling candles on site, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg can also buy a candle to take home from the Prentis Store.

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