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Mission Industry - Candle Making

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Candles at the Missions were made from one of two materials: tallow or beeswax. Tallow candles were more common since Missions ran large herds of cattle there was always an abundance of animal fat (also known as tallow) which was used to make the candles. One steer could easily produce up to 100 pounds of fat to process.

Tallow Candles

Processing began by rendering the tallow (melting and cooking it) and, after cooking for awhile, the tallow was strained to remove impurities and any remaining large pieces of meat or gristle not removed in the butchering process. The tallow was then cooled for storage until needed. When ready to make candles...

  • Heat the rendered tallow in a large vat or cauldron (Note: If the work was done near any Mission structures you might see the tallow heated in a cauldron of boiling water instead of directly over a fire; this was a protection against the tallow setting afire as fire was the constant enemy of Mission life).

Melting wax
Picture taken 12:00noon 21 Jul 2001

  • Once heated the tallow was again strained and further "washed" using boiling water. Since the candles would be burning indoors the tallow had to be made a pure as possible to minimize both smoke and noxious odors.
  • Cotton wicks were then prepared by soaking them in the tallow, hanging them up, and allowing them to dry straight with a tallow coating.
  • From here two different directions could be taken to make the candles:
    • Lay the wicks out into a prepared mold and pour the tallow into the mold. When dried and solid, the candles could be removed from the mold, shaped as needed, and used.
    • Hang the wicks from a frame and dip them into the melted tallow just enough to coat the wicks with a new coat of tallow but not enough to melt the tallow already in the wicks. Once that coat was dry the process would be repeated again and again to build up the candles to the required size. This process took much more time but produced much more uniform candles.

Picture taken 2:20pm 21 Jul 2001

Beeswax Candles

In a similar process...

  • Melt the beeswax in a vat or cauldron.
  • Soak cotton wicks in the melted beeswax and then hang them up to dry and harden as a straight center for the candle. The wicks were tied to a frame that could be hung over the cauldron after the wicks were dry.
  • With beeswax, the wicks were hung over the cauldron and a long-handled ladle was then used to dip the melted wax out of the cauldron and slowly pour it over the hanging wicks. This had the same effect as the process of dipping shown above but worked from the top down instead of the bottom up.
  • Once the candles were of the required size they were cut from the frame and rolled out on a hard surface.

Beeswax produced a softer but better burning candle. But, fewer beeswax candles were produced due to the greater abundance of tallow.


  • No specific references; just a compilation of notes from Mission museum displays and docent activity at the La Purisima Mission.

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Copyright © 2005 Tom Simondi, All Rights Reserved
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