If you think candles were invented by industrious bees that simply didn’t know what to do with the excess of wax they were producing, you’re a bit off on your history. These decorating staples, today found in nearly every home in the U.S., can be credited to two groups from thousands of years ago—the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Romans.
The Egyptians came up with the concept of rustic torches in 3,000 B.C. by soaking reeds in animal fat and lighting them on fire. They were effective for light, but not quite as decorative (or appealing in smell) as today’s candles.
According to the National Candle Association—yes, this is a real thing—ancient Romans were the ones who came up with the idea of a wick. They rolled papyrus, or a rope-like material made from the stems of water plants, which was also used for making sandals, in melted beeswax to create candles that they used to light their homes, travel at night or illuminate religious ceremonies.
Of course, other cultures were quick to see the allure of restricting fire to a singular pillar indoors. The Chinese made candles from paper tubes, insect wax combined with seeds and rolled rice paper for the wick. In India, they crafted candle wax by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree. That must have been a scent improvement over the aforementioned animal fat candle from Egyptian times.
Still, most early Western cultures returned to the animal fat idea for making wax. It was in the Middle Ages when beeswax candles were introduced in Europe, but since they were so pricey, only the wealthiest of individuals burned them in their homes.
Finally, in 1834, an inventor named Joseph Morgan developed a machine that could continually produce molded candles by using a cylinder with a moveable piston that ejected candles as they solidified. This mass production finally made candles an affordable commodity for all.
It wasn’t really until the 20th century that candles went from mostly function to decoration. Manufacturers found out that candle-buyers shopped with their noses as much as their eyes and scented candles took off. Candles are now one of the top-selling gifts for almost any occasion. And, only recently did inventors come up with the concept of flameless candles, nixing the fire hazard that can come with traditional candles, but keeping the ambiance and scent of its predecessor.