Lighting the Way

What’s in Mrs. Hales Receipts for the Million 1857?

Things to Know

2024: Why do candles and lamps “spirit” when rain is at hand?

2025: Because the air is filled with vapor and the humidity penetrates the wick, where (being formed into steam) it expands suddenly and produces a little explosion.

Anyone writing historical fiction or even a non-fiction piece ought to know about the technology of the times.  Nothing can bump a reader out of a scene faster than having a character light a candle with matches in 1630. Sometimes it’s best to create a timeline just for technology just to keep ahead of the curve.

I’ve been wondering about candles. I have a price list for 1858 for a store in what was Whatcom, Washington Territory.  I know that spermaceti Food Prices 1858candles came from the head wax of a sperm whale and was considered a step above a tallow candle when it came to longevity– it didn’t smell like stinky tallow candles either. But what of Belmont sperm and adamantine candles listed so often in ads in the Northwest and San Francisco?

Turns out they were varieties of candle made from stearic acid processed from either coconut oil or tallow.  First adamantine candles. These candles were made with stearic acid which was separated out of fat in tallow. This process of creating this acid was discovered in 1811 and improved the quality of the candles used in the home.  It was blended into the wax to harden it.  It got its name as it looked like stone.  It burned longer and well.

A Belmont sperm candle has nothing to do with  sperm whale oil.  Before 1830, there was a type of stearin candle made from  coconut oil.  Its main drawback was that it stank when the light was extinguished. Then in 1830, William Wilson of Edward Price & Company in the Belmont section of London began to make stearin candles using a combination of palm oil and coconut stearin.  These candles were considered better than tallow candles, but inferior to adamantine candles. They were, however cheaper than beeswax and spermaceti candles which would continue to bring top dollar.

I’ve been working on a scene in my novel in which the officers from both Camp San Juan (American) and the royal marine encampment (British) get together for a ball after a horse race.  Lanterns have been set up everywhere, the band and dancers up on boards. What a fairy scene it will be, as long as I keep my lighting straight and the night without a cloud in the sky.

When I go back to English Camp in week or so for the grand 150th, I’ll be taking my lantern with me and my flashlight.  Just in case I have to camp back in the woods. English Camp at dusk2

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