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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

Lighting the Nights of Christmas
by Bob Brooke


Antique candlesticks are favorites among collectors. Beautifully crafted, they create an intimate and memorable setting, especially during the Christmas holidays. Their twinkling light offers hope during long winter nights.

Humans have always needed fire for food, safety, and especially for light during dark nighttime hours. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of ancient candles made from animal fat or beeswax throughout the Middle East and Asia. But holding a burning candle soon proved to be problematic. Users needed something to hold the candle safely, and the candleholder was born.

Early Candleholders
At first people used crude holders of clay but over the centuries, the design and function of candlesticks became ever more sophisticated. Later candlesticks benefited from centuries of ingenious improvements that occurred during the 17th century. Both the stem and the base of candlesticks used to be made of solid brass. It was common for examples of that era to have a hole in the socket to remove the candle stump which would frequently get stuck. However, the 18th century brought a wave of innovation in candlestick design. First, instead of being constructed in solid brass, craftsmen made candleholders in two vertical halves.

Brazing them together left a hollow space inside and a line from the softer brazing material. This space allowed the addition of slide ejectors with a handle on the side or push-rod ejectors underneath the base. Both of these would push the tail end of the candle up the stem, allowing it to be easily removed. Makers further simplified the process by casting the stem in one piece using a removable core which allowed for a much finer and thinner product.

By the beginning of the 18th century, candlesticks had become spun and hand-tooled brass accessories needed by every household. Some were simple, but many featured a plain stem threaded to a square base with a shallow dished drip catcher. While single candlesticks had a wide range of uses and could easily be carried about the house after sunset, larger, more ornate multiple candleholders or candelabra began to appear on dining tables, servers, and mantels in later 18th-century homes.

The form of the candlestick has also gone through several transformations. Until middle of the 18th century, most candlesticks had large drip pans – a vertical plane attached to the middle of a candlestick to prevent the candle from dribbling. Candlestick makers often placed these half way up the column to protect the hand from hot melted wax.

However, as the candles began to be produced from a superior quality of tallow, these drip pans became no longer necessary, and the candlestick stem could be decorated with increasingly intricate designs. During the Queen Anne period, candlesticks had an octagonal shaped stem and round base without decoration. Early Georgian examples were also quite elegant and plain, perhaps with hexagonal or cut-corners base. During the mid-18th century, French Rococo influences transformed the candlestick stem.

Georgian candlesticks were masterpieces of floral decorations, asymmetrical designs brought into being by casting the base from independent pieces and soldering and chasing it afterwards. Later Georgian candlesticks featured gadrooned rims or baluster shaped stem with a series of knops. The bases, previously only round or square, were shaped into petal, swirl or scallop designs. By the reign of King George III of England, many more elaborate candlesticks featured fluted tapered Neoclassical columns threaded to incurved pyramidal bases.

To celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, James Clews and Sons of Birmingham designed a series of candlesticks that were first made in 1897. They were the ‘Ace of Diamonds, ‘King of Diamonds’ and ‘Queen of Diamonds’ and the designs proved so popular that they were still in production until the start of the war in 1939. Each candlestick has the name stamped on the base.

Tapersticks were small table candlesticks designed to hold a wax taper, a small thin tapered tallow candle. Many tapersticks were miniature copies of the period table candlesticks of the time. Early examples had minimal decoration and simple waisted sockets. By the mid 18th century styles had evolved to include gadrooning, fluting and other examples of Rococo decoration.

People frequently needed these small tapers during daily 18th century life when they first became popular. Inkstands often included tapersticks since senders sealed most letters with wax melted over the small tallow candle flames and then impressed with an intaglio carved with initials or the family crest. Tapersticks also served as chambersticks, as they were small and light and easy to carry from room to room, as well as for the purpose of lighting other candlesticks or for the lighting of tobacco.

Tapersticks are much rarer than the larger table candlesticks since few existed before the reign of Queen Anne. Because of their most common uses, candlestick makers generally made them individually, making pairs extremely rare.

The Candle Snuffer
As candlesticks became more sophisticated in the mid-18th century, people required a method to safely put out candles without blowing them. While the candle snuffer's component parts—scissors, a stand, dustpan—might be familiar to some people, combined, they do look strange. However, before electricity, candles and candle snuffers were an integral part of everyday life. Candle wicks used to be made of cotton which would start smoking and burst into flames as they grew longer, therefore necessitating regular trimming. The scissor part of the candle snuffer would sever the burnt wick, which would safely fall into the dustpan to be extinguished and discarded. This would also catch any dripping hot wax.

Christopher Pinchbeck the Younger invented and patented the candle snuffer in England in 1776. His device actually looks like a pair of stunted scissors with a raised round bowl atop them. The idea was to snip the wick, which was caught in the bowl and extinguish the candle safely with no soot or wax on the walls from blowing, or hot wicks catching anything afire. According to some reports, it was a sign of candle skill to be able to use the snuffer to trim a wick without extinguishing the flame. The device was still being produced in Birmingham, England until the 1970s.

Traditionally, craftsmen made all snuffers, douters, and extinguishers of brass, copper, or pewter and elaborately engraved many of them. That tradition, of creating a functional work of pewter art, continues in modern candle snuffers today, with their delicately twisted handles, basket woven cones, or beautifully etched patterns.

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