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The Chandlery and the Chandler

30 September, 2019

A medieval chandler stall (after Tacuinum Sanitatis)

Read Time: 4 minutes

Anyone know what a chandlery is? Didn’t think so. Who does??

In Europe, back in the medieval times, larger households stored wax, candles and soap in a large room. This office, or storeroom, was called a chandlery; a name that can be traced back to having its origins in the 15th century. The person that was in charge of this very important office was known as the chandler.

Candles were a very important part of medieval life and into early Victorian times. In fact, up until the advent of gas lighting in homes in the mid-1850s, candles were the source of light after dark.

The larger, more well off, medieval households used mostly candles made from beeswax. Beeswax was (and is) an important by-product of bee keeping. Back then honey was a prized delicacy and ‘keeping’ bees, rather than looking after them in the wild, became more common. Initially the wax would be bought from monasteries, but over time this changed as more people, and not just monks, kept bees.

As the production of beeswax became more common there were issues with poorly produced wax blends and impurities that caused the wax to smoke badly when it burned. So much so that Elizabeth I, to keep wax pure and clean burning, passed an Act to prevent impure wax: “An Acte for the true melting, making and working of Waxe.” The Act stated that wax should be “good holsome pur and convenient stuffe” and stiff fines were imposed on anyone who was found to be selling impure wax.

Poorer households relied on tallow to make their candles. Tallow is an animal product produced by rendering fat from cattle into purer tallow oil. Tallow is solid at room temperature. Wicks of twisted cotton strand were used in both beeswax and tallow candles. Tallow candles had an unpleasant odour and the smell associated with the making of tallow was so unpleasant that some cities banned the production of tallow.

Soap was a by-product of candle making and particularly from tallow. This was an important part of a chandler’s role. Large medieval houses would therefore have tallow for soaping and beeswax for candle making. To make soap, oils need to react with a lye solution. Traditionally, lye was made by soaking hardwood ashes in rainwater and then boiling this solution with tallow for a number of hours to make ‘soft’ soap. This type of soaping process is called a ‘hot process’ for fairly obvious reasons and is these days typically used to make the bases of shower gels and hand washes. On the other hand, ‘cold process’ soaping is today used for soap bar production.

In medieval times, candle and soap making was largely a private enterprise. Over time chandlers set up in business selling candles and soap from stalls to the ‘public’. As these stalls/shops developed, chandlers began selling a wide range of goods and provisions. Near ports and rivers, these enterprises would sell ships’ supplies to vessels and these merchants were known as ships-chandlers. Eventually the term chandler has become to mean more broadly the supply of equipment and fittings to boats and ships.

From early history the making of candles and soap has been an important endeavour. Whilst candles are today seen more as decorative and lifestyle objects, they were once critical in providing light to the darkness. Soap production continues to be important in modern living, and the art of the chandler remains alive in the artisans that produce soap from plant derived oils.

ForCandlesTM produces handcrafted candles made from 100% premium soy wax and handcrafted soaps and body care products in true artisan style.

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