Bayberry the Social Light

“Bayberry the Social Light,” Ensign, Dec. 1971, 147–48

Bayberry the Social Light

Perhaps there is no product more “New England” than the bayberry candle. In fact, New England’s bayberry was America’s first export, according to historian John Evelyn, an eighteenth century diarist. Its desirability came from its aroma, which was as delicately scented as a breeze recently mated with earth-hugging foliage. Bayberry candles were as unsputtering as starlight, and as free of smoke, and the bayberry’s pale olive green color was an iridescent mirror of New England’s green colorama.

These traits made bayberry candles the socially acceptable candles. In colonial times the making of candles was such a time-consuming job that each bayberry candle was saved to be used during nighttime vigils with the sick or some other solemn occasion, or for a very special evening gathering. On many happy occasions the frugal colonists pooled their bayberry candles to achieve a high point of sociability.

It is not surprising that the New Englanders treasured bayberry candles so much, when you consider what they had to put up with before one of our ancestors discovered the bayberry. New Englanders at first used the Old World type of candle made from melted animal suet. These foul-smelling tallow candles gave a feeble, sputtering light, smoked badly, and were disagreeably dirty.

Toward the middle of the eighteenth century advertisements offering bayberry candles for sale were not uncommon. Sometimes a bit of verse was used. The following one is famous:
“A bayberry candle burned to the socket
Brings luck to the house and gold to the pocket.”

Such an advertisement attests to the shrewdness of some early New Englander who had a greater supply of bayberry candles than his own household required. By saying (in a roundabout New England way) that good things in life come only to those who are thrifty, work hard, and burn the midnight oil, he promoted the sale of his candles very well.

But usually there was no surplus. Even through the New England coast was prolific with bayberry bushes, it might take as much as twelve hours to pick a ten-quart pailful of berries. This was done after the first frost by running the hands along the branches or briskly rubbing the fingers through the twigs and allowing the fruits to fall into a basket or apron. Then the candlemaking began.

The berries were picked over, and as many leaves, twigs, and other trash were removed as possible. The berries were then placed in iron kettles over a fireplace, usually outdoors. They were covered with cold water and stirred with wooden paddles, and all floating debris was removed before the heating began. As the fire warmed, the wax melted away from the berries, rose, and floated on the surface of the water. Heating took three hours or more.

When the water cooled, the wax solidified. This wax was melted with water again in a smaller kettle, and finally it was strained through four thicknesses of cheesecloth to remove the last of the trash.

The wax was then ready for dipping. This was accomplished by tying wicks of proper length to the end of a stick and dipping them repeatedly into a container of molten wax. The dips were made quickly, and the wax was allowed to harden after each dip. At least twenty-five dips were needed to make a candle of a size acceptable to the householders.

Although today we can easily purchase many varieties of candles, those made from the bayberry remain our favorites. You can buy candles in any color of the rainbow, molded into fanciful figurines or trimmed with sequins and bows, smelling like violets, strawberries, or a pine forest, but we still prefer the simple, hand-dipped bayberry candle. Wherever they burn they create a special atmosphere, lending their special charm with a touch of an old New England atmosphere that no other candle can give.

  • Mrs. Witter has been free-lance writing since 1935. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois and the mother of two children.