Saturday, August 23, 2014

Illuminating Wilton: A Candle Box

Object: Candle Box, English, c. 1770-1790
Accession #: 1986.0003
Candle Box on display at Wilton

For over a century now candlelight has been cast in a romantic glow - however for the five thousand or so years of human existence prior to the invention of electric light - candlelight was an unsteady, messy, expensive, and notoriously dim source of lighting. Contrary to the depiction of historic interiors on the screen which are overflowing with lighted candles as if Liberace were the set designer - candles were used sparingly and required diligent care to prevent them from blowing out or catching the house on fire. 

In  eighteenth-century Virginia candles could be made from a variety of available substances such as tallow, beeswax, and myrtle or bayberry wax. Tallow, or animal fat, was relied on most often for the making of candles despite emitting an unpleasant odor.  Beeswax was “warmly accepted” when introduced because it released a more pleasant odor, burnt cleaner, and did not produce as much smoke.  The cost of beeswax candles limited their use by even the wealthiest to special occasions of hospitality. Most households used the tallow candle to light their passages and chambers. 
Detail of rear joint construction

The making of candles was a labor intensive and messy job. In Colonial America, women found that wax could be extracted from the bayberry bush.  It took 15 pounds of boiled berries to produce one pound of wax.  The process was tedious and therefore  “the trend of the bayberry candles was short lived.”  It is no surprise then that those that could afford to do so preferred to purchase ready-made candles rather than produce them. During 1769 alone nearly 10,500 pounds of tallow candles were imported into Virginia along with over 6,000 pounds of spermaceti, or whale oil, candles. Spermaceti candles were of such value that their presence in a household was often remarked upon in estate inventories. It produced a wax that was odorless, burned brighter, and created a candle that was more resistant to heat. 

Laboriously made or dearly purchased household candles were then carefully guarded and inventoried by the mistress of the house or the housekeeper. Household pests were attracted to the ingredients that were in candles. It was feared that servants and slaves would pilfer them, or that a careless child burn the place down. Storage contributed to the maintaining of the household’s lighting supplies. Candles were sometimes stored in cellars to keep them cool or in closets to “combine convenience with security.” Candles were also stored in candle boxes, such as this one in Wilton’s collection.  Candle boxes could be either free standing and hung on the walls.  They could be made of wood, brass, sheet iron, and tin. Candle boxes made it more convenient to access smaller quantities of candles as well as keeping more expensive candles away from household pests or accidental use by the servants. 
Rear of candle box

Surviving Randolph family inventories provide a hint as to how the family illuminated Wilton. Though one of the grandest houses in the colony - the estate inventory lists just five brass candlesticks and snuffers. No other lanterns, lamps, or candlesticks of any other kind are included. Five burning candles - with the aid of the light from the fireplace - would have provided the only documented artificial illumination at Wilton. 

The candle box is currently displayed in the gallery space at Wilton House Museum as part of an exhibition of the weird and wacky from daily life in eighteenth-century Virginia now on display at the museum in What History Reveals until October 30. 

Works Cited
Clouston, R.S. English Furniture and Furniture Makers of the 18th Century. 9 April 2014.

Powers, Lou and Harold Gill. “Candlemaking”. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library
Report Research Series-33: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (1990). 24 April 2014. <>

 “Special Exhibits: Fire and Light”. Allison-Antrim Museum. 5 April 2014.

“Architecturally Speaking: Room Study: Recommended Objects: Lighting”. Gunston Hall
Plantation. 5 April 2014. <>

“History of Candlemaking”. Agricultural History Project Center and Museum. 25 November

2013. 5 April 2014. <>