Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 26 - Candle Making

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    IT must be a very young man who does not remember that most noisome invention — the mould candle, accompanied by its still more noisome companion a pair of snuffers; and yet how should we stare, if on the table of the most modest household they should again appear. Indeed, they seem as much a thing of another age as the flaring flambeau and its rude extinguisher, which may yet be seen suspended from the scrolled iron-work about the doors of old family mansions. This light of other days sprang directly out of the domestic grease-pot: its manufacture was a rude, not to say disgusting handicraft, and if anyone had been bold enough to say that one day a new light would arise, that would materially affect the destinies of a whole people, Bedlam would have been thought his proper destination. Yet this seeming dream of delirium has come to pass; and the production by negro free labour of palm oil, now so largely used in the manufacture of soap and candles, has greatly assisted in giving a check to the slave trade.
    Noticing the other day the extraordinary piles of casks incumbering the wharf of Messrs. Price and Co. 's Patent Candle Company at Battersea, we could not help looking upon them as so many dumb missionaries ever circulating [-255-] between England and the gold coast of Africa, spreading civilization and religion over the latter hitherto benighted region. And the introduction of a new commodity for the supply of a common want, has again re-acted favourably on the labour of the particular trade to which it refers. Instead of the chandler's shop, where the simple process of melting refuse animal fat alone engaged the intelligence of the workmen, we saw in this establishment a vast laboratory, and in place of mere mechanics directing the works, a practised chemist availing himself of the last word of science and the best products of mechanical skill. Instead of the grease-pot or the beeswax cake comprising the whole repertory of the trade, the museum of the establishment sets before our eyes the products of a hundred climes, which may be ranked among the raw materials of the manufacture.
    The animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds are laid under contribution for the same end. The Shea Butter butter of Abyssinia a vegetable product first mentioned by Bruce; petroleum of Ava, a mineral; the beautiful insect wax of China; the cotton pod, which yields the last new light of America; the hundred-and-one nuts of tropical climes; and even the fat of the tiger, may here be seen, proving that the efficient production of even so insignificant a thing as a candle necessitates a knowledge of a large range of sciences, and includes within its grasp not only the contents of the grease-pot, but the analogous products of the whole world. The process of manufacturing candles, as carried on at the works of Price's Patent Candle Company, which we propose briefly to describe, is one of the most interesting sights in London. The two establish-[-256-]ments are known as Belmont, at Vauxhall, and Sherwood, at Battersea; and the huge corrugated iron roofs of each are doubtless well known to the reader who is in the habit of passing frequently up the river. The manufactory at Sherwood is by far the largest; indeed, at Belmont little more than the production of night-lights and the packing of the manufactured goods is proceeded with. At Sherwood the works cover twelve acres of ground, six of which are under cover; and to this establishment we wish to carry our reader. The raw materials principally used in this manufactory are palm oil, cocoa-nut oil, and petroleum ; the first, however, is used in by far the largest quantities, and to its preparation for the manufacture of candles we shall first draw attention. Palm oil, as imported, is of a deep orange colour, of the consistency of butter at midsummer; hence it will not flow out of the cask like the more fluent oils; and to assist this costive tendency the first care of the manufacturer the following plan is pursued: the casks of oil, as they arrive from the docks, are transferred to a large shed, the floor of which is traversed from end to end with an opening about a foot wide, which is in communication with an underground tank. Over this opening the bung-hole of each successive cask is brought, and the persuasive action of a jet of steam thrown into the mass speedily liquefies and transfers it to the underground tank. Herefrom the oil is pumped by steam power to what may be called the high service of the establishment, gravitation being sufficient to make it carry itself to the distilling-rooms. Palm oil and all animal oils are made up of three elements a very hard body, called stearic acid, a liquid termed oleic acid, and a white syrupy [-257-] body, which acts as a base to the other two. Now these three companions agree admirably in nature, but the moment art attempts to convert them to her own purposes in the formation of candles, a little difficulty arises the glycerine turns out to be the slow man of the party; like many good men and true, its illuminating power is found to be greatly deficient to that of the company it is in, and hence its ejection is voted by the scientific candle maker. Not long since, this was performed by the process termed lime saponification. By this method cream of lime was intimately mixed with the fatty matter to be acted upon, and the principle of chemical affinities coming into play, the different ingredients, like the dancers in a certain coquettish waltz, forsook each other for new comers; thus the stearic and the oleic acids waltzed off with the lime, leaving the glycerine by itself, dissolved in tears the resultant water. No sooner, however, was this arrangement completed, than it was broken up by the introduction of strong sulphuric acid, which in its turn waltzed away with the lime, leaving the fat acids free. This was an expensive process, however, inasmuch as, independently of the cost of the lime and sulphuric acid, the stearic acid obtained was comparatively small in quantity, and the whole of the glycerine was wasted. The next step in the process is known as the sulphuric acid saponification, the fat acids being exposed to sulphuric acid at a temperature of 350 Fahr. By this process the glycerine is decomposed, the fats are changed into a dark, bard, pitchy mass, the result of the charring of the glycerine and colouring matters its final purification being effected in a still, from which the air is excluded by the pressure of super-heated steam. In 1854 this [-258-] process was brought to its present perfect state by passing this super-heated steam directly into the neutral fat, by which means it was resolved into glycerine and fat acids, the glycerine distilling over in company but no longer combined with them. This was an immense step gained, inasmuch as the glycerine thus for the first time obtained pure, and in large quantities, was raised from being a mere refuse product which the candle maker made every effort to destroy, into a most important body, of great use in medicine and the arts; indeed, like gutta-percha or vulcanised India-rubber, it is no doubt destined to play a great part in the affairs of the world, and is far more valuable than its companion bodies, the stearic and oleic acids. In the chemical laboratory little episodes of this kind are continually occurring, the rejected, despised, and unknown refuse, being often led forth at last as the Cinderella. of science. We may here mention that it is the presence of this very glycerine in the old mould candle, and in the still existing "dip," which produces the insufferable smell of the candle-snuff. A candle when blown out exposes the smouldering wick to the action of the atmosphere, and the glycerine distills away in the smoke. Yet here we see as much as six tons distilling at one time in one room without the slightest smell, in consequence of the process taking place in a vacuum. Imagine, good reader, what would be your sensations sniffing at six tons of the concentrated essence of candle-snuff!
    The two acids, the hard stearic and the fluent oleic, have still to be separated, as it is only the former which is, from its high melting point, calculated to form the true candle material. The cooled. fats, forming a thick lard-like sub-[-259-]stance, having been cut in appropriate slices by means of a revolving cutter, are then by an ingenious labour-saving apparatus spread upon the surfaces of cocoa-nut mats, which are taken away in trucks to the press-room. As these pass in huge piles before you, the imagination may picture a tea-party of Brobdingnagians, and these are the countless rounds of brown bread and butter provided for the occasion. In the press-room these piles are subjected to hydraulic pressure, which slowly squeezes out the oleic acid, leaving the stearic acid behind, in the form of thin, hard, white cakes. These are re-melted in a huge apartment filled with deep wooden vats, appropriate cups for the monstrous bread and butter before mentioned. The arrangement by which the melting process is carried on is novel in the extreme. Into each vat a long coil of pipe depends, which admits into the fatty mass a hissing tongue of steam, which quickly liquefies it. The use of metal boilers is precluded by the fact that, on account of the acid oil to be acted upon, silver, as in the manufacture of pickles, would be the cheapest that could be employed.
    The stearic oil, or candle-making material; of the cocoa-nut is extracted simply by pressure, no distillation or acidification being required. The well-known "Composite candles" of this form are made from a combination of this oil at low melting point and the hard stearic acid of the palm oil, their relative proportions varying according to the varying condition of the price of each in the market. We have yet to speak of the production of candle material from the novel substance Petroleum, a natural product of the kingdom of Burmah, where it wells up from the ground, like naphtha, to which it bears a very striking resemblance. [-260-] It is a mineral substance composed of a number of hydrocarbons, varying in specific gravity and boiling points. The preparation of this dark orange-coloured liquid is conducted simply by distillation: a number of very different products coming over at different temperatures, ranging from 160 to 620 Fahrenheit. The first product to distil is the extraordinary liquid termed sherwoodole, a detergent very similar to benzine collas, the well-known glove-cleaner, removing grease-stains like that liquid, but without leaving any smell behind. A very beautiful lamp-oil, termed Belmontine oil, is the next product. This oil burns with a brilliant light, and, as it contains no acidifying principle, it never corrodes, like other oils, the metal work of the lamps. The two next products are light and heavy lubricating oils, used for lubricating spindles at a much cheaper rate than the ordinary oils now in use. The last product to distil is termed Belmontine, a new solid substance of a most beautiful translucent white, somewhat resembling spermaceti, and forming a candle of a most elegant appearance, very similar to the paraffine lately distilled from Irish peat. In addition to the candle-making materials already mentioned, there are numerous others, which are worked when they can be procured cheaply.
    The candle-making material being now fit for moulding, let us introduce the reader to this department of the manufactory. A room, 127 by 104 feet, is fitted up throughout its entire extent with parallel benches, running from one end of the department to the other. In these benches ranged close together in a perpendicular direction, are the candle moulds. How many thousands of these may be counted we scarcely like to say ; but, viewed from above, [-261-] their open mouths must present the appearance of a vast honeycomb, commensurate with the size of the room itself. Along the top of each bench, 104 feet in length, there runs a railway, and working on this railway is what may be termed a candle-locomotive a large car running on wheels, containing hot candle material The wicks having been adjusted truly, in the long axis of the mould, the locomotive now advances, and deposits in each line of moulds exactly enough material to fill them, proceeding regularly from one end of the bench to the other, setting down at different stations its complement of passengers. After a sufficient time has elapsed to allow them to cool, preparations are made to withdraw them from their moulds. This is done in the most ingenious manner: in an apartment close at hand an iron boiler of great thickness is filled with highly compressed air, by means of a pump worked by a steam-engine; pipes from this powerful machine communicate with every distinct candle-mould, and convey to it a pressure of air equal to 451bs. to the square inch, about the surface of the diameter of a candle. These candle-moulds and the air-pump constitute an immense air-gun, containing thousands of barrels, each barrelloaded with a candle. The turning of a cock by boys in attendance lets: off these guns, and ejects the candles with a slight hissing noise. This fusilade is going on all over the room throughout the entire day, and in the course of that time no less than 188,160 candle projectiles, weighing upwards of fourteen tons, have been shot forth. The intelligence and care with which the attendant boys catch these fatty missiles is accounted for by the fact that Price's Patent Candle Company rectify their labour as well as their raw [-262-]  material; the excellent schools established by the Managing Directors, Messrs. Wilson, enabling them to select the most careful lads for those departments requiring particular attention.
    The visitor should notice particularly the wicks of these candles, as upon their method of preparation the abolition of the snuffers, that grand reform in the matter of domestic light, depends. These wicks, in the first place, are made very fine, the high illuminating power of the stearic acid enabling a. fine wick to give far more light than the coarse wick of the common "dip." Again, the particular twist given to the wick when it is plaited, and the wire with which it is bound, causes it to project from the flame when burning. Palmer's candle-wicks, it will be remarked, are twisted upon each other, the relaxation of the twist as it burns answering the same end the projection of the burning cotton through the flame and into the air, which immediately oxidises it, or causes it to crumble away, thus obviating the necessity of snuffing. Here we see an extraordinary example of the manner in which a very simple improvement will sometimes interfere with a very large trade, the simple plaiting of a wick doing away with one of the most extensive branches of hardware in Birmingham and Sheffield.
    The candles are sent forth into the market in pound packets, packed in highly ornamental boxes. The manufacture of these boxes is not the least interesting part of the manufactory. In consequence of the duty on paper, it was necessary to look about for some cheap substitute, and deal was finally adopted. A plank, one foot wide by four long, is planed into no less than 140 shavings of that size: [-263-] these are pasted on one side with a very thin straw paper, so as to form. the hinges for the sides. They are cut out by a machine to the required sizes, and rapidly made up afterwards by hand, the cost being truly insignificant. For the manufacture of the night-light cases, the shavings are rolled into a cylinder, pasted, and then out off to the required lengths in a hand-lathe.