One of the most important autumn tasks of the colonial American housewife was candle dipping. Probably few candles were as pleasant to work with as those made from bayberry wax.
The bayberry shrub, which the settlers also called the Virginia myrtle or candleberry bush, is a North American native shrub found mostly along the Eastern seaboard. Varieties of the bayberry, including the northern bayberry (Morella pensylvanica) and southern bayberry (Morella cerifera), grow from Maine to Florida, most abundantly along the coast of the Atlantic.
The first and cheapest candles were made from the rendered tallow, or fat, of domestic animals like sheep and cattle. The fat would be saved for months, and likely often smelled rancid by the time candle-making day arrived. Turning the tallow into candles, a job usually reserved for the women and children of a household, required that the fat be melted in an iron kettle set in a fireplace. Wick strings were doubled, and strung at the middle point over a narrow stick, called a candle rod. The two hanging wick strings were twisted together below the stick. After being dipped into the melted fat, the candle rod was rested on a rack until the tallow cooled and hardened. This dipping and hardening action was performed repeatedly until the wax coating the wick was thick enough to use as a candle.
Tallow candles were an improvement over more primitive forms of early American lighting such as the limbs of pitch pine trees, or reeds soaked in cooking grease. But the odor and smoke they gave off when burned was decidedly smelly. The earliest settlers along New England’s coast would have sparingly used what few candles they owned, since raw materials for making them were in short supply. Access to tallow only gradually increased along with the population of sheep in the New World.
Discovering that the fruit of the bayberry, a woody shrub that grew abundantly along the shore, could yield a bright, clean-burning and fragrant candle must have been a revelation for the colonists. When the shrubs’ fruit ripened in late fall, children were sent to gather the tiny grayish-white berries. Boiling the berries in water released their waxy coating, which floated to the surface. The women skimmed off the wax and allowed it to harden for later re-melting and wick dipping. One candle-making session must have required numerous berry harvests, since a quart and a half of bayberries yielded only enough wax for one small candle. More prosperous families might own small candle molds, which allowed the user to cast up to a dozen candles simultaneously. In time, itinerant candle makers, or chandlers, traveled throughout the colonies carrying many large molds with which to speedily transform a household’s store of tallow or wax into 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 their expiring Snuff.”
~ Robert Beverley, History and Present State of Virginia, 1705
The process of making dipped candles appears deceptively simple. In fact, candle making was an art that demanded careful attention and perfect timing. The melted wax, and the open flame beneath it, had to be maintained at precisely the right temperature. Too hot, and the wax would melt off the wick before it could harden. Too cool, and the candles would emerge lumpy and misshapen.
Although the bayberry harvest and candle-making was a labor-intensive process, working with the aromatic wax must have become an enjoyable autumn ritual for the women, offering a break from the daily monotony of household chores. Bayberry candles were treasured for their perfume, and in fact became a popular item for export to England. Because of their importance to commerce, the shrubs became highly valued and even warrented civic protection. A 1687 law, enforced with a fifteen shillings’ penalty, forbade the residents of Brookhaven to pick bayberries until September 15.
On his visit to North America in 1748, Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm recorded the colonists’ use of the bayberry: “There is a plant here from the berries of which they make a kind of wax or tallow...it grows abundantly in a wet soil, and seems to thrive particularly well in the neighborhood of the sea...Candles of this do not easily bend, nor melt in summer as common candles do; they burn better and slower, nor do they cause any smoke, but yield rather an agreeable smell when they are extinguished.”
Bayberry remains a sentimental favorite candle fragrance to this day, particularly around Thanksgiving and Christmas, but almost all such candles are made from wax scented with an essential oil, rather than from pure bayberry wax.