The most popular event on the calendar at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic site is, without a doubt, the annual Candlelight Tour! Every year literally thousands of people flock to the little village the first full weekend (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) of October to get a glimpse of how the village looked after dark!
Many modern visitors have never experienced life by candlelight but the residents of New Salem in the 1830s certainly did! The only artificial lighting they knew commonly knew was candlelight, or the light of the fireplace, or, for the wealthy, whale-oil lamps. Kerosene was still in future and the only electricity they knew was lightning!!
But for all the romance of candles, there was a “dark” side, too! In the 1830s, making candles was, for many women, a household chore – and not a pleasant one either. Christiana Holmes Tillson, the wife of a store-keeper/postmaster in Bond County, Illinois, recalled making candles for Mr. Tillson who later became an agent for a land-office.
But the most tedious thing was candlemaking. Each desk in the office must be supplied with two candles, and with what was necessary for other parts of the house not less than three dozen would suffice for a week. Unfortunately for my own comfort I had experimented and made improvements in dipped candles until I had succeeded in getting them of such brilliancy that no others were to be used in the office. I used to dip sixteen dozen in the fall and twenty dozen in the spring. For the spring candles I boiled the tallow in alum water to harden it for summer use. Were I to attempt to tell you the process, or the labor bestowed on these “nocturnal luminaries,” you would not comprehend it, and as the day is past for making them, being a part of housekeeping, it will not be worth while to expatiate further on their merits. But oh! I can fancy my poor, tired shoulder and strained arm are now in sympathy with the toil of tallow. Not like practicing two hours on the piano, which when you are tired you can stop, but from three to four mortal hours the right arm must be in constant movement. If a rest is given to the arm the candles become too hard and break, and the tallow in the pot gets too cool, so dip, dip, dip, six candles at a time; each time the candles grow heavier and heavier, and the shoulder more rebellious. Besides the dipped candles I had moulds in which I could mould two dozen at once, and all the accumulations from the beef that we weekly cooked was turned into moulded candles, which your father said looked well, but did not give as clear a light as his office candles. I sometimes bought a cake of deer’s tallow; it was harder than beef, but not as white; the natives used to put beeswax in their tallow. I tried it, but found they emitted an unpleasant smoke. [A Woman’s Store of Pioneer Illinois by Christiana Holmes Tillson. Reprinted by Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville]
So, the next time you light a candle, think about how precious that light was in the 1830s!
And don’t forget that you can own your very own Candle lantern – just visit the Shop tab