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Some Notes on Bayberry Candles

Updated: May 14, 2023

Burning a bayberry candle. Photo by Michael Wyszomierski, via Flikr.

Reprinted from The Chronicle Volume VI, No. 1, January, 1953

A report prepared by M. W. Thomas, Jr. and W. D. Geiger in connection with the operations of the chandlers craft in Colonial Williamsburg.

General History

The use of the berries of the Bayberry bush, ( Myrtle bush, Candleberry bush, Virginia Myrtle) seems to be American in origin as this species of plant has its location in the Western Hemisphere.

The manufacture of candles from the wax extracted from this bush undoubtedly had its beginnings in North America in the 17th century. We know that as early as 1689 Myrtle wax is mentioned and the fact that it was used in candle manufacture in New England is known.

In Virginia, Myrtle wax was common as early as 1700. Governor Francis Nicholson received a shipment of 26 pounds from the lower end of the peninsula in 1700. In 1705, Robert Beverley in his The History and Present State of Virginia, describes the Myrtle bush, its fruit, the resulting wax, and the method of manufacturing candles:

"At the Mouth of their Rivers, and all along upon the Sea and Bay, and near many of their Creeks and Swamps, grows the Myrtle, bearing a Berry, of which they make a hard brittle Wax, of a curious green Colour, which by refining becomes almost transparent. Of this they make Candles, which are never greasie to the Touch, nor melt with lying in the hottest Weather: Neither does the Snuff of these ever offend the Smell, like that of a Tallow-Candle; but, instead of being disagreeable, if an Accident puts a Candle out, it yields a pleasant Fragrancy to all that are in the Room; insomuch, that nice People often put them out, on purpose to have the Incense of the expiring Snuff.

"The Method of managing these Berries, is by boil­ing them in Water, till they come to be intirely dissolv'd, except the Stone, or Seed, in the :Middle, which amounts in Quantity to about half the Bulk of the Berry; the Biggest of which is something less than a Corn of Pepper."

The Swedish naturalist, Peter Kalm, described on his visit to the colonies in 1748 the same procedure.

"October 13th. There is a plant here, from the berries of which they make a kind of wax or tallow, and for that reason the Swedes call it the Tallow Shrub. The English call the same tree the Candle-berry-tree, or Bay­berry-bush; and Dr. Linnaeus gives it the name Myrica cerifera. It grows abundantly on a wet soil, and it seems to thrive particularly well in the neighborhood of the sea, nor have I ever found it high up in the country far from the sea. The berries grow abundantly on the female shrub and look as if flower had been strewed upon them. They are gathered late in autumn, being ripe about that time, and are then thrown into a kettle or pot full of boiling water; by this means their fat melts out, floats at the top of the water, and may be skimmed off into a vessel; with the skimming they go on till there is no tallow left. The tallow, as soon as it is congealed, looks like common tallow or wax, but has a dirty green colour; it is for that reason melted over again, and re­fined; by which means it acquires a fine and pretty trans­parent green colour; this tallow is dearer than common tallow, but cheaper than wax. In Philadelphia they pay a shilling Pennsylvania currency, for a Pound of this tallow, but a pound of common tallow only came to half that money, and wax costs as much again. From this tallow they make candles in many parts of this province, but they usually mix some common tallow with it. Candles of this kind do not easily bend, nor melt in summer as common candles do; they burn better and slower, nor do they cause any smoke, but rather yield an agreeable smell, when they are extinguished. An old Swede of ninety-one years of age told me, that this sort of candles had formerly been much in use with his coun­trymen. At present they do not make so many candles of this kind, if they can get the tallow of animals; it being too troublesome to gather berries. However, these candles are made use of by poor people, who live in the neighborhood of a place where the bushes grow, and have not cattle enough to kill, in order to supply them with a sufficient quantity of tallow. From the wax of the candleberry tree, they likewise make a soap here, which has an agreeable scent, and is best for shaving. This wax is likewise used by doctors and surgeons, who reckon it exceeding good for plasters upon wounds. A merchant of this town once sent a quantity of these candles to those American provinces which had Roman Catholic inhabitants, thinking he would be well paid, since wax candles are made use of in the Roman Catholic churches; but the clergy would not take them. An old Swede mentioned that the root of the candleberry tree was formerly made use of by the Indians as a remedy against the tooth-ache, and that he himself having had the tooth-ache very violently. had cut the root in pieces and applied it around his tooth; and that the pain had been lessened by it. Another Swede assured me, that he had been cured of the tooth-ache, by applying the peel of the root to it. In Carolina, they not only make candles out of the wax of the berries, but likewise sealing wax."

Bayberry candles Were popular throughout the 18th century. They burned with a clear flame, they were not greasy and gave the opposite of the unpleasant odor of tallow candles. They were expensive in comparison to tallow candles and this is readily understandable when one considers the labor problem in securing the berries. However, the wealthy Virginian could supply the labor and the berries were available in abundance to those who had time to secure them. On the other hand, the bay­berry candle was not as expensive as the spermaceti and beeswax candles of the period.

The bayberry candle was much in demand in the fine houses of Colonial Virginia. The Ludwells and Lees mention the desirability of these candles, and a royal governor, Baron Botetourt lists them in his in­ventory of 1770. Williamsburg merchants sold candle­sticks designed to hold 1/2 pound green wax candles in 1771.

As early as 17 52 the desirability of these candles can be seen in the fact that Virginia was exporting Myrtle wax candles in sizeable amounts.

In contrast to the use of these candles by the gentry was their use by the poor farmer of Tidewater Virginia and the Carolinas. Mark Catesby in his, The Natural History of Carolina, describes the method of securing these candles by poor families as early as 1722.

"In November and December, at which times the berries are mature, a man with his family will remove from his home to some island or sand banks near the sea, where these trees most abound, takin with him kettles to boil the berries in. He builds a hut with Palmeto leaves, for the shelter of himself and family while they stay, which is commonly three or four weeks. The man cuts down the Trees, while the children strip off the berries into a porridge-pot, and having put water to them, they boil them till the oil floats, which is skim'd off into another vessel. This is repeated till there re­mains no more oil. This, when cold, hardens to the consistence of wax, and is of a dirty green colour. Then they boil it again, and clarify it in brass kettles, which gives it a transparent greeness. These candles burn a long time, and yield a grateful smell. They usually add a fourth part of tallow, which makes them burn clearer."

Obtaining the Wax

The Bayberry is common to the East coast from Maine to Florida, growing most abundantly near the seashore. There appear to be several varieties of the shrub, some of which produce larger quantities of wax than others. It has been observed that bushes in the vicinity of Williamsburg yield the most berries where they are well watered, i. e. the banks of streams or ponds. The berries occurring in this locality are only 1/2 to 1/3 as large as those found in Massachusetts and Connecti­cut, in spite of the fact that the bushes here are larger and more vigorous. Berries are available on the bush from mid-summer until mid-winter. They gradually change in color from pale green in summer to a bluish green in winter. The best time for gathering berries and the extraction of wax seems to be in the early fall after the time of the first frost. The berries can be gathered by hand by stripping them on to a sheet on the ground or into a pail. In an experiment it was found it required 12 man hours to harvest a 10 quart bucket of berries.

Wax is extracted from the berries by pouring them into vats of boiling water and skimming off the greenish oil which rises to the surface. This extraction process should be carried on over a period of time of at least two hours, since it has been found that all wax contained in the berries is not liberated on the first attempt. It is probable that if a device for squeezing the berries under boiling water could be devised, the yield of wax could be considerably increased and and a great saving in time effected. In one series of experiments, it was found that approximately 2 quarts of bayberries give one ounce of wax. The wax which is first skimmed off the boiling vat is generally somewhat dirty and contains foreign matter. Purify the wax by boiling it twice an strain­ing it through cheesecloth. After purifying, the wax is ready for use in candlemaking. lt has been found that there is considerable variation in the color of bayberry wax. Its color may range anywhere from pale yellow to dark green. The reasons for this variation are not understood by us although it is believed they are related to the time of harvest of the berries. Color variation does not seem to affect the burning quality of the wax.

Where large quantities of candles are to be pro­duced, it is impractical to harvest berries in this country. Mexico and South America produce large quantities of bayberry wax, which is available on the American market at about 70 cents per pound. This wax seems in all respects identical to that obtained in this country. Imported wax is sometimes dirty and requires straining through cheesecloth to remove the foreign particles. Some of it is very yellow in appearance and if attractive candles are desired, it is best to specify, "dark green," when ordering.

Melting the Wax

Wax for candlemaking should be melted in a metal container over a gentle source of heat. If too much heat is applied, the wax will dissolve or even catch fire and burn. Wax should not be kept molten for long periods of time since it has a very appreciable rate of evaporation. We have found that buckets of wax kept liquid all day will decrease by as much as 30 percent in weight. Molten bayberry wax is very liquid and can he poured like water from any suitable container. Its melting point is considerably lower than paraffin so that it can be handled readily without any danger from accidental contact with the body.

Preparation of a Wick

A satisfactory wick for bayberry candles may be prepared by twisting thin cotton twine about itself until the desired thickness is achieved, or, of course, it can be hand spun on the spinning wheel. Cotton seems to produce the best wick, although flax or wool can be used. For preparing large quantities of candles it is usually necessary to purchase a commercially braided wick. There is no definite rule for the thickness of the wick, it can be best arrived at through experience. We use 24 ply wicks.

Dipping Candles

Preparing candles by dipping is probably the simplest method, although it is quite laborious and does not yield candles as uniform and attractive as those pre­pared in molds. When candles are to be dipped, the vat of wax should be heated just above the melting point and if possible held at that temperature by surrounding the vat with a jacket into which hot water can be poured. This latter device is not absolutely essential. The dry wick is dipped into the open vat, withdrawn, allowed to cool and dipped again. After several dippings, the wick must be straightened by hand, as it will generally develop a curved condition. It is possible, of course, to keep the wick straight by attaching a weight to the wick end. The art of dipping candles must be learned through experience, but in general it is important that the temperature of the wax be carefully controlled, that the wick be kept straight, that the candle be submerged in wax to exactly the same point each time and that sud­den changes of temperature and drafts be avoided. Cor­rect timing, that is, the amount of time the candle is left in the wax and amount of time it is given to cool between dippings, is most important. After repeated dippings wax begins to build up below the end of the wick and can be trimmed off from time to time, if the vat is deep enough, it can be allowed to build up and be cut off after the candle is finished. Generally, be­tween 50 and 60 dippings are necessary to produce an average size candle and this will ordinarily require about an hour. It is, of course, possible to speed up this whole process by constructing racks, whereby a large number of candles can be dipped at one time. After repeated dippings and trimming to desired sizes, nothing remains to be done but to trim and polish the candle to remove minor imperfections.

Molding Candles

unmolding candles

Candles are removed from the molds by dipping the molds into hot water. Notice the use of the tail of the wick as a handle. The candles are being removed from block tin or pewter molds. On the table are tinned sheet iron molds and under it are ceramic molds. Note that the freshly re­moved candles are placed on a rack (lower left corner) to prevent damage to their surfaces which are extremely soft. Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.

There are three well known types of candle molds. One type is made of tinned sheet iron, one type is made of heavy block tin or pewter and still a third type is made of glazed earthenware. The operation for all three types of molds is much the same. Tinned iron molds are the most common and produce, in general, the least attractive candles since they nearly always contain a ridge where the metal was joined and minor imper­fections due to careless handling. Block tin molds are much more satisfactory both from the standpoint of ease of operation and quality of the finished product. Molds of glazed earthenware probably produce the best look­ing candles of all, but they are quite rare and difficult to obtain. Molds are prepared for use by first cleaning them thoroughly on the inside and removing every trace of moisture. This latter is quite important since drop­lets of water will cause white specks in the finished candle.

The wick is prepared for use by first tying a large knot in one end, then the unknotted end of wick is drawn through the aperature in the apex of the candle mold with the aid of a small wire. The knot is pulled tight against the aperture and the wick is secured in position by tying it firmly to a stick or rod attached at right angles to the mold itself. There is usually a provision on the rack in which molds are held for accommodating this rod. It is quite important that the wick be stretched in the exact center of the mold and that the knot be large enough to form an effective stopper for the aper­ture. Most candle molds are so arranged so that from 6 to 24 individual molds can be positioned at one time on a single rack.

After the molds are prepared, the melted wax is slowly and carefully poured into them until they are quite full. Then as the wax cools and shrinks, more must be added so that the molds are kept full at all times. Oftimes, when pouring, some wax will leak out of the aperature at the apex of the mold. Generally, however, this leakage stops as the wax begins to cool. The spilled wax can be salvaged and used again.

Wax should be allowed to set in the molds until it is quite hard and brittle. This takes anywhere from 2 to 12 hours, depending on room temperature. It is best not to cool the molds too rapidly since this will some­times result in a whitish discoloration on the surface of the candle.

After the wax is thoroughly cooled, the wick is cut from the supporting crossrod. Care should be taken that enough excess wick is left so as to form a handle for withdrawing the candle. The knot is then carefully cut from the apex of the candle and the individual mold freed from its supporting rack. Candles are removed from the molds by first immersing the mold in hot water and quickly withdrawing it. Then the candle is with­drawn from the mold by gently pulling on the excess piece of wick which remains at the base of the candle. In the case of tinned sheet iron molds where rack and molds are generally made as one piece, the entire unit is dipped in hot water at one time. A mold must not be held too long in hot water as a large amount of the candle will be melted away. On the other hand, too much force must not be applied in withdrawing the candle since bayberry wax is extremely brittle and subject to breakage unless carefully handled. After the candle is withdrawn from the mold, it is readied for use by trimming off the excess wick and by polishing with a soft cloth. It should be noted that if glazed earthenware molds are used, candles are removed not by clipping in hot water, but by dipping in ice water. This causes the candle to shrink from the side of the mold so that it can be withdrawn. Candles cast in earthenware molds usually require very little polishing.

polishing candles

Polishing the candles with cheesecloth is a necessary finishing operation when metal molds are used. This step is not necessary when ceramic molds are used. Note how the wick extends through the mold and is tied to a horizontal metal rod leaving a surplus piece to be used as a handle when candles are extracted. The large candles on the table are probably similar to the "one half pound green wax candles" of the eighteenth century and are designed to be used in a candle stick. This type of stick has a pro­jecting wrought iron point which fits into a drilled hole at the base of the candle. Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.

Burning Candles

Bayberry candles burn with a clear even light and a slight fragrance. This fragrance is most noticeable when the candle is extinguished and smoke rises from the still glowing wick. Bayberry candles burn quite rapidly and they are by no means dripless. The wax which would otherwise be wasted by the drip from these candles can be salvaged and re-used again along with the stub from the candle itself. Bayberry candles do have one important advantage over paraffin candles and that is that they will never sag or bend in hot weather. They retain an upright position until they are heated almost to the melting point.

It is possible to stretch your supply of bayberry wax by diluting it with stearic acid or with paraffin, but this is not generally recommended since it will, of course, tend to destroy some of the desirable characteristics in­herent in bayberry wax itself.

It is characteristic of bayberry candles that they will occasionally, while burning, misbehave and melt themselves into a puddle of wax. Too large a wick will aggravate this condition. The candle will also burn unevenly if used in an exposed place where it is sub­jected to drafts.

Bayberries on the bush. Photo by geneva_wirth, via Flikr.


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