“Smoky, unwholesome, and enormously expensive”: Tallow candles in the museum

Em Dombrovskaya, WPAMC ’24

As we visited museums concerned with the daily lives of people in the past on our British Design History trip, I started taking note of the investment museums are making in multi-sensory experiences of the home. In many cases this means the presence and interpretation of tallow candles. Tallow candles have been made by rendering animal fat within the home at least since the existence of the Roman Empire. Beeswax candles were not invented until the Medieval Period, but continued to be prohibitively expensive into the 19th century.1 Tallow candles have a characteristic foul smell when heated, they smoke easily, and can only be used safely for about 30 minutes to prevent the pooling of the fat in its liquid form.2

Various Stages in the Process of Candle Making and Machinery Used. Engraving. [between 1700 and 1799]. Engraving; image 18 x 22 cm. Wellcome Collection.

During our trip to England we interacted with tallow candles at Hampton Court Palace, in the almshouse rooms of the Museum of the Home, in the Dennis Severs House, and in multiple rooms of the Birmingham Back-to-Backs. This was not a completely new experience to WPAMC students–tallow candles are used as part of the school program tours at Winterthur in the “Bugs in the Museum” program. Students sort objects related to bees and see the tin candle storage box used to prevent bugs and mice from eating tallow candles in the Delaware Valley Dining Room.3 The sites using tallow candles span several centuries and tell stories about people of different economic classes. Why do they all care about the historic presence of tallow candles in these spaces? 

The ubiquitous nature of these candles opens the window to understanding the era of pre-electric home lighting, which we in the 21st century take for granted. A lack of light transforms interiors. The range of activities one can do becomes limited, light and shadow activate interiors in a new way–the relation of people to space and to each other changes. Furthermore, making this an economic question through comparison with beeswax candles helps the public understand the value of labor and provides insights on domestic finances. Tallow candles can help teach rarely addressed material histories in museum settings. However, I don’t think most museums find success in their tallow candle interpretation for practical reasons. In her 2017 essay “Tallow Candles and Meaty Air in Bleak House,” Anna Henchman writes that “Once lit, melted, burned, and dispersed into the air by fire, the candle becomes something that penetrates boundaries and permeates air, walls, and ceilings.” Moreover, “[the burning] leaves a residue that is too fleshy, too embodied, and too alive. ”4 Museums in the UK seem to be more inclined to light some wax or soy candles in gallery spaces than those in the US, the stench and vermin risk of tallow candles seems like a serious detractor for most museum environments. Is there a way to manufacture the smell in a contained space? Illuminate the museum space in an irregular and sequential manner? How can museums create immersive experiences of historical interiors without “dipping” the public in tallow? The Museum of the Home has been commissioning scents for their museum spaces (including one foul bathroom odor). This is only one innovative approach to activating the senses of visitors, and many experiments are on the horizon.

If anyone is interested in trying their hand at tallow candle making, the National Parks Service has a handy sheet of instructions from the Fort Clatsop in Astoria, OR: http://npshistory.com/brochures/lewi/tallow-candles.pdf.

1 Davidson, Marshall B. “Early American Lighting.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3, no. 1 (1944): 30–40. https://doi.org/10.2307/3257239.

2 “From Candles to Electric Lights | Museum of the Home.” Accessed March 8, 2023. https://www.museumofthehome.org.uk/explore/stories-of-home/lighting-up-our-homes/.

3 Interpretation Department. “Bugs in the Museum! Program Manual.” Winterthur Museum, 2018.

4 Henchman, Anna. “Tallow Candles and Meaty Air in Bleak House.” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, no. 25 (December 1, 2017). https://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.794 .

One response to ““Smoky, unwholesome, and enormously expensive”: Tallow candles in the museum”

  1. Marin Bako says:

    This was such an interesting read! I have to confess, I have spent very little time thinking about lighting sources prior to our current electric lights, and even less about museums’ recreations thereof. I can understand why there is debate around the topic, though. I think the idea of recreating soy or wax candles with realistic (if unpleasant) smells is a fun compromise, preserving elements of the immersion while also not “permeating” anyone that doesn’t particularly want to be permeated.

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